Cool Discoveries and Inventions That Won the Nobel Prize

By Jake Schroeder
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Winning the Nobel Prize is a pretty amazing accomplishment. From chemistry to physics to literature, Nobel Laureates are among the best and the brightest people, furthering human knowledge one discovery at a time. But even among the winners of such a distinguished honor, there are those who stand out from the rest. Here are a few of the most amazing discoveries and inventions that have ever won the Nobel Prize.

Cells in Low-Oxygen Environments — 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

2019’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to William Kaelin, Sir Peter Ratcliffe and Gregg Semenza for their work in the mechanics of how our bodies alternate between high- and low-oxygen environments.

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In low-oxygen environments, a protein called HIF-1a is produced; it's oxygen-sensitive, so it disappears when there’s a high level of oxygen in our cells. Other scientists separately found that cells lacking the VHL gene were more likely to experience hypoxia (a lack of oxygen). Ratcliffe and his team linked the two. HIF-1a impacts our immune systems and influences conditions such as anemia, heart attacks and cancer.

Holographs — 1971 Nobel Prize in Physics

We might see them everywhere now but holographs certainly haven't always been around. Dennis Gabor earned his 1971 Nobel Prize in Physics when he discovered a method of developing photographs based on interference (light waves interacting with one another) and coherence (light waves lining up with one another).

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Normal photographs are developed by capturing the light falling on an object on photographic film, but there's also a reference beam that doesn’t fall on the object. When the reference beam alone falls on the developed film, the light bends so the photo appears to be three-dimensional.

Radiation — Marie Curie

We've all heard of Marie Curie — as we should have, because her work is extremely important in the foundations of science today. But did you know she's won not just one but two Nobel Prizes? Her first prize was awarded for physics (alongside Henri Becquerel) for discovering two new elements: radium and polonium.

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After discovering the elements, she continued to investigate what properties they held and eventually was able to produce radium as a pure metal. She also documented several radioactive properties that led to major discoveries in the scientific field, including the use of radiation in medicine to treat tumors.


Ion Traps — 1989 Nobel Prize in Physics

It might sound a bit like a Ghostbusters weapon, but the ion trap is a very real scientific tool that has helped scientists make a series of advancements in their fields. We can thank Wolfgang Paul for this discovery, and we can safely say that his 1989 Nobel Prize was well-earned.

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Paul discovered that if he used electromagnetic fields and electrical currents, he could "trap" individual ions. Keeping individual ions made it significantly easier for scientists to study their properties and behaviors, thus allowing them to build mass spectrometers which, among many applications, have solved crimes in forensics labs.

Background Radiation — 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics

Most of us probably didn't know this, but there’s cosmic radiation falling to Earth from outer space pretty much all the time. Nowadays, scientists say that it's essentially leftover radiation from when the Big Bang happened, creating the universe.

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It was only discovered about 50 years ago by Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias. After discovering the existence of the radiation, they theorized that the radiation would get weaker as the waves got shorter. This was proven wrong, however, when they found that microwaves were actually stronger than expected. The two received a Nobel Prize in 1978 for their discovery of what they called "cosmic background radiation."

The Expansion of the Universe — 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics

It’s fairly common knowledge now to say that our universe is expanding at a constantly accelerating rate. But this wasn't always so well-known; in fact, it was only discovered in 1998, by Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess.

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They discovered that the universe was expanding by tracking supernovae (exploding stars). The light emitted from stars appears weaker and more red the farther away it is. When researchers realized the supernovae were moving, they were able to track how fast they were moving, and thus reached the conclusion that our universe is rapidly expanding with no signs of slowing down.


Photon Trap — 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics

We’re able to study many aspects of our universe, but one thing that — until recently — we could not, is the quantum world. It’s so small and behaves so differently than the rest of our universe that for a long time we were only able to study it theoretically.

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In the 1980s, Serge Haroche used a special kind of "trap" to capture photons. This enabled him to study those photons, which allowed for a much more practical study of the quantum phenomena that occur when matter and light interact. For the first time, scientists were able to see parts of the quantum world.

Photoelectric Effect — 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics

No list of Nobel Prize winners would be complete without Albert Einstein. One of the most recognizable figures in science, Einstein was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. He wasn’t awarded for his theories of general or special relativity, however, but for proving the photoelectric effect.

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The photoelectric effect states that if metal electrodes are exposed to light of a certain intensity, then electrical sparks between the electrodes will occur more easily. Einstein explained that a photon (or, as he originally described it, a "packet" of fixed energy) must reach a certain frequency before it can liberate an electron.

Gravitational Waves Emitting From Pulsar Star — 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics

On the back of Einstein's theory of general relativity, James Taylor and Russell Hulse turned to the heavens and discovered a new type of pulsar star. This won them the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics.

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Pulsars are a particular type of star. They’re very compact, and they emit radio waves with regular variations. Taylor and Hulse, however, discovered a pulsar made up of two stars rotating around each other in close proximity. They were able to prove that the stars' behavior conformed with the general theory of relativity and correctly predicted that the pulsar would emit energy in the form of gravitational waves.


Carbon Dating — 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Believe it or not, when people found dinosaur bones in previous decades, they weren't able to precisely determine how old the bones were — they just had to guess. Until 1949, that is, when Willard Libby developed the carbon dating method.

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Carbon, an element common to all living things, has two forms. One of them (carbon-14) is radioactive. By measuring the amount of radiation emitted, Libby realized he could more accurately date things like dinosaur bones or archeological relics by determining the age of the carbon within them. Thanks to him, scientists can provide a much more accurate timeline of history.

Systematic Drug Production — 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Going to the store to pick up medication seems like the easiest thing in the world. Luckily for us, we have a large variety of treatments for our medical ailments. That wasn't always the case, however; in fact, the transition to having accessible drug treatments was pretty recent.

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The 1950s represented a pretty big turning point for improving drug-treatment options. Gertrude Elion, with George Hitchings, developed a more accurate and systematic method of producing drugs based on knowledge of diseases and biochemistry. The drugs they created have been used to treat malaria, leukemia and a host of other diseases.

X-rays — 1901 Nobel Prize in Physics

X-ray vision might be a mythic power granted to Superman and other such fictional characters, but the origins behind this idea are rooted in much more scientific grounds.

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Wilhelm Röntgen was studying cathode radiation when he discovered that even though his apparatus was screened off, there was a faint light visible on a light-sensitive screen that happened to be near the experiment. The result of this is what we now call X-rays. Thanks to Röntgen, doctors can perform medical exams to see what's happening inside our bodies, and scientists use the technology for a host of other experiments.


Blood Types — 1930 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

We might think that knowing our blood types is pretty common knowledge, and it is — at least today. But that wasn't always the case. In fact, it wasn't until 1901 that people realized there were different types of blood.

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Karl Landsteiner discovered that sometimes when different people's blood mixed, the blood clotted. He realized that there were different types of blood and that certain types couldn’t be mixed. Before he shared his research, the medical results of mixing blood could be catastrophic. Thanks to him, now we know our specific blood types, and blood transfusions and other medical procedures are much safer.

Atomic Laser Traps — 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics

Studying atoms is critical for our ability to understand our world and the building blocks that make it. At room temperature, though, atoms move far too quickly for observation. In order to study them, scientists need to slow them down to a more reasonable speed.

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In the 1980s, scientists developed a new method for doing this. William Phillips, Steven Chu and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji worked together to develop a special "trap" in which they could better study atoms. They used laser light specially adjusted for their purposes to cool atoms to extremely low temperatures, which slows them down enough for study.

Particles Moving Faster Than the Speed of Light — 1958 Nobel Prize in Physics

Many of us assume that the speed of light is about as fast as things can go. But actually, some things can move faster than light because the speed of light can change. In certain media, light slows down, so other particles can move faster than light.

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Pavel Cherenkov discovered this "Cherenkov Effect" when he noticed a strange blue light surrounding a radioactive substance he'd placed in water. Later scientists helped him explain the phenomenon: When electrically charged particles pass through a medium, they disturb the electrons, and when they settle back down, they emit light. Normally we can't see it, but if the particles move faster than light, we can.


Telescopes for Cosmic X-rays — 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics

When we look up at the stars and galaxies of the night sky, we see the light that they’re emitting. What we don't see are the X-rays that they're also emitting. In the 1960s, a scientist named Riccardo Giacconi made significant contributions to the development of telescopes that would allow us to study those X-rays.

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The X-rays emitted by stars and galaxies dissipate as they pass through the atmosphere of the earth, so we have to study them from afar. Giacconi's telescopes allowed us to see the X-rays being emitted, as well as X-ray sources that may be coming from black holes.

Partition Chromatography — 1952 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

If you see a brown stain on your shirt, you can look down and say "Ah, that's coffee." But what if the liquid you spilled was a combination of multiple substances? It would be tricky to nail down exactly what was in it. At least, it was tricky up until 1949.

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Archer Martin and Richard Synge discovered that if a drop of liquid is placed onto a piece of paper, the liquid will start to spread out. The different substances in the liquid will spread at different speeds, marking the paper with slightly different colors. This methodology allows scientists to better determine the composition of a substance.

The Double Helix — 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Francis Crick and James Watson were awarded Nobel Prizes for revealing the structure of our DNA: a double helix. Our DNA is made up of four types of bases, which allow it to function as a code for our bodies and to copy itself. History did not let them go without a scandal, however.

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Rosalind Franklin, uncredited for the research and pictured here, actually provided a lot of the data used to complete calculations. The pair used a photograph that Franklin took, an unofficial report of her data that was given to them and other pieces of evidence from her research to complete their experiments.


Photon Energy Transfer — 1930 Nobel Prize in Physics

Energy is transferred if two things bump into each other. You don't need a fancy lab to test this theory; just go challenge your friend to a round of bumper cars. But sometimes, when the two things go their separate ways once more, their individual properties have changed.

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Chandrasekhara Raman noticed that if light collides with something that’s smaller than the light's wavelength, the light spreads in different directions. Yet, some of the scattered light has a different wavelength than the original light had. Some of the energy from the photons can transfer to the other molecule, changing the energy levels in both particles.

The AIDS Virus — 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

HIV and AIDS weren't identified until 1983 when Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montaigner discovered in patients a retrovirus that attacked lymphocytes (a blood cell that's very important for the human immune system). Retroviruses are viruses composed of RNA, a "cell messenger" carrying genetic information. They contain genes that can work their way into their hosts’ DNA.

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Later, the retrovirus was named Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and as we know now, it turned out to be the cause of the disease called AIDS. Once the illness was categorized, treatment became possible. The discovery helped people suffering from AIDs and HIV and allowed medical professionals to better understand the diseases.

DNA Repair — 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Did you know our DNA isn't 100% stable and it can get damaged? Three scientists (Thomas Lindahl, Aziz Sancar and Paul Modrich) researching DNA through the study of bacteria provided some valuable insight into this particular field.

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Lindahl demonstrated how certain repair enzymes can remove and replace damaged parts of our DNA. Sancar showed something similar regarding DNA that had been damaged by UV light. Modrich discovered how methyl groups attached to our DNA act as signals for repairing sections of DNA that have been replicated incorrectly. These discoveries have helped us better understand things like the aging process and the causes of cancer.


Cellular Growth Factors — 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

When humans are formed, we develop from a single cell. That cell divides to form new cells, and those cells divide to form new cells and so on until all of our different cells with all of their different functions are formed. Rita Levi-Montalcini, alongside Stanley Cohen, contributed massively to our knowledge of this process.

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In 1952, Levin-Montalcini, after isolating a substance from tumors in mice, proved that it caused immense growth in chicken embryos. Now known as growth factors, her discovery has led us to deeper knowledge and understanding concerning things like dementia, tumor diseases and delayed wound healing.

Conductive Polymers — 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Normal plastic material is made of polymers (large molecules that are formed of long chains of smaller molecules). On their own, polymers don’t conduct electricity. In the 1970s, however, Hideki Shirakawa, Alan Heeger and Alan MacDiarmid were able to create conductive polymers for use in electronics.

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They created these conductive polymers by alternating single and double bonds between carbon atoms in the chains of the molecules and adding suitable atoms so that holes or free electrons appeared after the electrons. Their discovery has allowed for some major advancements in the field, and conductive polymers are now used in many electronics such as solar cells.

Atmospheric Layers — 1947 Nobel Prize in Physics

In the early 20th century, when radio waves were sent across the Atlantic, it became evident that they followed the curve of the Earth. Physicists at the time assumed that there must be a layer of Earth's atmosphere that was reflective, where the sun's UV light had liberated electrons from the atoms in the radio waves.

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Edward Appleton proved the existence of this atmospheric layer. He studied the interference of radio waves that had taken different paths and established the existence of the ionosphere. His research, and the discovery of another atmospheric layer, had major implications for the development of radar.


Scanning Tunneling Microscope — 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics

Traditional microscopes are usually limited in the sizes of the objects that they can observe by the wavelength of light. Heinrich Röhrer and Gerd Binnig, in 1981, developed a new microscope that could transcend this limit. It changed the way scientists could gather data.

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The scanning tunneling microscope uses an extremely thin point above a surface. A small electrical current is passed between the point and the surface, and a current arises that varies with the shape of the surface. It allows for the creation of an image of the thing being observed, and viewers can see things as small as individual atoms.

Tracking Radiation — 1943 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Up until 1923, it was fairly difficult for scientists to track elements through various processes and states of being (which is an important part of understanding how they work). George de Hevesy was trying to do just that when he realized that he was unable to separate an isotope of radium from lead.

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Hevesy realized that, by marking the lead with the radium isotope, he could measure the radiation emitted from the radium, and thus track the lead through varying processes. He published the method, and it became a useful tool across scientific disciplines to study and understand organisms and compounds.

Electrocardiograms — 1924 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Doctors' ability to read a chart with heartbeats displayed in plain form was a medical miracle when it was first introduced (and still is, when we're waiting to hear the results). Modern medicine and all of its patients can thank Willem Einthoven for this particular discovery.

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During the late 19th century, doctors had already discovered that heartbeats create a small current of electricity on the body's surface. In 1903, Einthoven developed a machine that allowed doctors to measure those currents, thereby providing an accurate reading regarding the ways a patient’s heart is functioning. We now know these readings as electrocardiograms (ECGs).


The Cloud Chamber — 1948 Nobel Prize in Physics

With a name like something out of a fantasy novel, this invention by Patrick Blackett paved the way for a whole host of discoveries. The Cloud Chamber is a specialized chamber full of supersaturated air that allows tiny, electrically charged particles to leave a trail behind them when they pass through it.

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Among other things, the Cloud Chamber, when connected to a Geiger counter, can detect the passage of a particle, and a photograph can be snapped of the instant a particle passes by. With this method of detection, Blackett proved that pairs of electrons and positrons could form out of photons.

Giant Magnetoresistance — 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics

As unlikely as it may seem, sometimes scientists arrive at the same conclusion independently of one another — perhaps even in a fairly close timeframe. This happened for Peter Grünberg and Albert Fert in 1988 when both discovered the phenomenon of giant magnetoresistance (GMR).

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GMR is a phenomenon that occurs when materials are only a few nanometers in thickness. Their properties and behaviors can change — and Grünberg and Fert realized that small changes in magnetic fields could create huge differences in electrical resistance. Their discoveries helped technologies advance dramatically, and thanks to GMR our computer hard drives have become much smaller.

Solar Lighthouse — 1912 Nobel Prize in Physics

In the early 1900s, sailors still relied on lighthouses to safely navigate their ships into harbors. Lighthouses used beacons of light composed of acetylene gas. However, this gas produced low light and smoke.

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Gustaf Dalen discovered a method for the beacons to emit short flashes of light, reducing the amount of gas consumed. Later, he invented the "solar valve," which regulated light emission based on the expansion of metal rods. This kept the light off during the day and automatically turned it on at night. This development allowed for a more efficient, safe passage for sailors.