The amazing, complicated science of the Nobel winners explained

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Pictures of the winners of the 2016 Nobel Chemistry Prize: Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L Feringa are displayed on a screen during a news conference by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden October 5, 2016. TT News Agency/Henrik Montgomery/via Reuters?ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. SWEDEN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SWEDEN. NO COMMERCIAL SALES. - RTSQUAN

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, it’s time for our weekly segment about the Leading Edge of science and technology.

And, this week, there’s plenty of science in the news with the Nobel Prizes.

Hari Sreenivasan has more from our New York studios.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The latest winners are in the field of chemistry, and the Nobel went to a trio of scientists who helped pioneer tiny molecular machines in the world of nanotechnology. These are specially designed molecules that can produce controlled movements. And there’s talk they could some day be useful in the world of medicine.

Our science correspondent, Miles O’Brien, is here to walk us through the significance of this and the other Nobels awarded this week. He joins us tonight from San Diego.

Miles, Drs. Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa, for the design and synthesis of molecular machines. How small are we talking?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, think of a nanometer.

A nanometer is — well, there are 80,000 of them in a human hair. That will give you an idea. We’re talking very small. Imagine machines at the molecular level that can do work, and some of the applications that we’re thinking about are potentially drug delivery inside our system, and many others where tiny machines can pack a punch.

Another application they’re looking at potentially, Hari, is creating computer storage capability at the atomic level. Well, if you’re storing things at the atomic level, you basically need a processor that is at the molecular model.

And so nanomachines are potentially revolutionary. We’re still very early on, though, in that game.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How do you build something that small?

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s basically a chemical process that you engage with, and that is part of their insight.

And, you know, basically, the researchers are saying that we’re kind of like the Wright Brothers at this point. We built a flying machine, but how could you possibly have conceived of the 747 at the time that occurred?

These mechanisms, these tiny nanomachines, have the capability of revolutionizing medicine, revolutionizing computer storage, and really who knows what, because we can’t imagine that 747.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, let’s shift to physics.

The Nobel was given to David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz for something called topological phase transitions and phases of matter. I need an advanced degree just to understand what the prize was for.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, yes, it’s — this is a tough one. It’s a lot of mathematics and physics. And it’s difficult, frankly. It’s tough sledding.

But it is a very human moment involved. There is a very human moment involved. Dr. Kosterlitz got the word in his car. Listen to his response.

QUESTION: We run the official Web site for the Nobel Prize. Have you already heard the news of the announcements to the physics…

DR. MICHAEL KOSTERLITZ, Nobel Prize Winner: No, haven’t heard anything. I’m talking from an underground car park in Helsinki, Finland, right now. So, I can barely hear you.

QUESTION: It has just been announced in Stockholm that you are one of the recipients of the 2016 Nobel Prize in physics.

DR. MICHAEL KOSTERLITZ: That’s incredible. That’s amazing.

MILES O’BRIEN: What a way to get the news, eh?

So, here’s what this is all about, phase changes. You might remember this from high school. Phase changes occur — it’s the difference between steam becoming — condensing down to water, and then ultimately freezing into a solid. Those are phase changes we understand.

When it gets to the quantum level, the way things shift from phase to phase, we don’t understand as well. As a matter of fact, the quantum world is like a parallel universe. Things react and do things very differently.

Topology is a technique where you identify basic shapes, whether something has like a single hole or two holes or is solid. And the Nobel Committee used a pretzel and a bagel and a muffin to try to illustrate this point.

But by understanding that mathematics, scientists hope to get greater insights into what happens at the quantum level as things move from phase to phase. This might one day lead to superconducting materials that can do their job at room temperature. So far, that’s been a very elusive goal, Hari.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Monday, the Nobel for medicine was handed out to just one individual, Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi, for something called autophagy. What is that?

MILES O’BRIEN: Autophagy is recycling at the cellular level. It happens inside our bodies.

For many years, scientists have known about lysosomes. Lysosomes are parts of our cells that take things that you don’t necessarily want there, potentially toxins, and breaks them down into their constituent parts to be reused by the body.

What scientists never really understood was, how does the bad stuff get to the lysosome? And that’s where autophagy comes in. Autophagosomes are essentially the dump trucks, the trash trucks of our body delivering stuff to our cells to be recycled.

Now, this is potentially very exciting, because this might be at the very heart of the very mechanisms that create cancer, for example, or neurological diseases. And in the case of embryonic development, if you can see and understand this, you can learn about how an embryo might develop.

So there’s tremendous potential there for medicine, lots of papers generated out of this one particular discovery by this one individual. Very unusual.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Miles, if there was a Nobel Prize for explaining the Nobel Prizes, you should be in contention.

Thanks so much for joining us tonight from San Diego.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome, Hari.

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