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By Abigail Dove
On a cold December day in Stockholm, Sweden, the 2019 Nobel laureates in Physics and Chemistry—among them three APS members—delivered their Nobel Lectures.
The Nobel Lectures are a proud tradition that light up Stockholm’s dark winters. The lectures punctuate the days leading up to the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony on December 10, the anniversary of the death of Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel, who established the Prize in his will. Most Nobel Lectures are free and open to the public, so as both a scientist and an eager new Stockholmer six months into my studies at the Karolinska Institute, I was determined to attend.
I quickly learned that this is easier said than done. Lining up early enough to secure one of the 1,200 available seats at Stockholm’s grand Aula Magna auditorium is something of an endurance sport in the harsh Swedish winter. I arrived nearly two hours before the doors opened for the back-to-back lectures for the Physics and Chemistry prizes.
The 2019 Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry exemplify the diversity of achievements encompassed in Alfred Nobel’s somewhat enigmatic definition for prize-winning work: discoveries that have “conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics (see APS News November 2019) was awarded for theoretical and experimental contributions to understanding the universe and our place in the cosmos, underscoring the value of pure, curiosity-driven research. On a more earthly level, the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (see APS News November 2019) was awarded for the development of rechargeable lithium ion batteries, which has subsequently enabled the revolution in wireless electronics and opened new frontiers for storing renewable wind and solar energy.
The Nobel Foundation (photo courtesy of Lovisa Engblom)
The doors to the lecture hall mercifully opened just as an icy mix of rain and snow was beginning to fall, and there were barely any empty seats to be found when APS Fellow James Peebles (Princeton) took the stage to kick off the Nobel Lectures in Physics. Peebles is credited with developing the theoretical framework for our modern understanding of how the universe evolved after the Big Bang. His lecture provided a journey through cosmology, including the cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang, the existence of dark matter and dark energy comprising a large part of the cosmos, and the structure of the universe as a “cosmic web” of galaxies. He emphasized that “on occasion we’re driven by the brutal weight of the evidence,” but nature occasionally operates by rules we can discover “by pure thought, which can be remarkably effective.”
The other half of this year’s physics prize was jointly awarded to University of Geneva’s Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, who in 1995 made the first discovery of a planet outside our solar system, the Jupiter-sized 51 Pegasi b, located about 50 lightyears from Earth. Mayor emphasized that the discovery of this planet brought with it the implication that many of the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way should have planets as well, adding new weight to age-old philosophical questions about our place in the universe. Queloz explained that there are now over four thousand known planets, most of which look nothing like our own. This has focused attention on the physical processes by which planets form and evolve.
The Nobel Lectures in Chemistry proved just as stimulating, highlighting how discoveries from this year’s three laureates—APS Life Member M. Stanley Wittingham (SUNY Binghamton), APS Fellow John Goodenough (University of Texas at Austin), and Akira Yoshino (Asahi Kasei Corporation; Meijo University)—culminated in the development of the lithium ion battery.
Wittingham is credited with the development of the first functional lithium battery. Reflecting on now-ubiquitous battery technology born from this early work, Wittingham remarked that he is “not even close to being done.” Modern lithium ion batteries deliver less than 25 percent of the theoretical energy density they contain, leaving plenty of room for further research and improvement.
Goodenough subsequently doubled the lithium battery’s energy capacity by building the cathode using a metal oxide instead of Wittingham’s metal sulfide. This also enabled the batteries to be manufactured in an uncharged state and charged afterwards, a decisive step toward the mobile, wireless technology we use today. At an impressive 97 years of age, Goodenough is the oldest laureate in the history of the Nobel Prize. Looking back on his career of over 70 years, he remarked on how fundamental curiosity-based research can evolve into major applications for society.
Finally, Yoshino’s lecture focused on his work refining the lithium battery’s anode. He found that Goodenough’s lithium cobalt oxide cathode functioned well with a carbon-based petroleum coke anode, and this system could be based entirely on lithium ions—a safer, less-flammable alternative to pure metallic lithium. This was the final step in making the batteries suitable for widespread commercial use. Noting that most of today’s lithium batteries are used for mobile information technology, he was hopeful for greater utilization of these for greener means of transportation.
To this end, the urgency of mitigating climate change emerged as a common thread. To complement the chemistry laureates’ focus on cleaner energy and ending our dependence on fossil fuels, Mayor pointed out—to a stirring round of applause—that despite the existence of other planets in the Milky Way, the closest one would take over 10 million years for humans to reach if travelling at the velocity of Apollo 11, leaving “no Plan B” for us on Earth if environmental destruction continues.
Each laureate also emphasized their appreciation for the scientists who came before them and who worked alongside them, drawing a sustained standing ovation. The occasion was as inspiring as it gets, not least of all because the experience was shared by a community of people—from high school students to retirees, from all corners of the globe—who waited in the cold to witness it.
The author is a freelance writer in Stockholm, Sweden.
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