How Will the 2016 Nobel Winners Contribute to Engineering?
Kyle Maxey posted on October 14, 2016 |
Will the latest achievements in fundamental research have a major impact on engineering?
The Nobel Prize. Well worth the work! (Image courtesy of the Nobel Prize Organization.)

The Nobel Prize. Well worth the work! (Image courtesy of the Nobel Prize Organization.)

The Nobel Prize might be the academic world’s most coveted and prestigious award. Covering the fields of Literature, Peace, Chemistry, Physics, Economics, and Medicine and Physiology, the Nobel is awarded once a year in each discipline in recognition of a momentous achievement that has advanced human understanding of our world, commerce, nature and humanity.

While the research that garners a Nobel prize may often have little immediate impact on the field of engineering, the likelihood that some clever tinkerer will harness the promise of one of these ideas somewhere down the line is pretty high. So, it seems like it might be worth our while to take a look at this year’s Nobel winners in the fields of Physics, Chemistry and Economics to try to fathom how the discoveries that earned each prize have already impacted engineering or if not, where they might find a place in the future. 

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2016

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 was divided, one half awarded to David J. Thouless, the other half jointly to F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz "for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter."
Theoretical physics is always difficult to describe and the work done to win this year’s Nobel prize in Physics is no exception.

Over the last 30 years, David Thouless of University of Washington, Princeton’s Duncan Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown have been exploring why materials behave in unusual ways (think having unconventional electrical behavior, or acting as a frictionless liquid flow) by using “topological objects.”

A Mobius strip is a classic representation of a topological object.
A Mobius strip is a classic representation of a topological object.
Topological objects are mathematical constructs that exhibit the same properties regardless of the material involved. Essentially, a topological can be used to simplify complex systems, like those occurring during matter phase transitions, in order to understand why a material is behaving a certain way.

Beginning in the 1970s, topological objects were used to understand how traditional matter transitions, such as the journey from gaseous to liquid states, were occurring. By the 1980s, more complex transitions like the quantum Hall effect were being investigated using topological objects. Since that time, topologies have become a widely used tool for investigating spooky states of matter.

So, what does this year’s Nobel in Physics have to do with contemporary engineering? 

Although complex, the study of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter have led to the discovery of exotic states of matter that could impact the fields of nanoscience, quantum computing and even photonics.

Today, the fundamental research that won the 2016 Physics Nobel is still too theoretical to impact engineering on a day-to-day level—and that may remain to be the case. However, by using topological tools, physicist can examine states of matter in profound ways and those inquiries could lead to the breakthrough material that future engineering projects will require.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 was awarded jointly to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa "for the design and synthesis of molecular machines."
Beginning in 1983, the University of Strasbourg’s Jean-Pierre Sauvage started describing how molecules could be linked together in chain-like arrangements by using copper ions as a form of molecular welding. With a method for forming molecular chains in place, Sauvage had set the stage for a chemical engineering revolution that had been prophesized as early as the 1960s. 

Within a decade, Northwestern University’s Fraser Stoddart had refined the method for creating molecular chains at scale and had also figured out how to control how the molecular rings moved around one another, which gave them the ability for controlled motion. By 1999, Bernard Feringa of the University of Groningen had taken the work done by Sauvage and Stoddart and constructed the first molecular motor.

A diagram of the workings of a molecular machine. (Image courtesy of Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.)

A diagram of the workings of a molecular machine. (Image courtesy of Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.)

Since the construction of the first molecular motor, a number of molecular components have been built, including switches, rods, ratchets and the like. This made it possible to build machines on the nanoscale. Today, more and more engineers and scientists are working with molecular machines and devising new ways to exploit the abilities of these machines to work on such a small scale.

Molecular machines are still difficult to construct at scale, making it difficult for engineers to do much more than improve their construction techniques. That being said, the state-of-the-art in the field is advancing and researchers predict that in the near future, molecular machines will be used to improve drug delivery systems, solar panels and much more.

In fact, in an interview with Science News, Feringa best encapsulated the potential and excitement surrounding his burgeoning field. “[It] feels a bit like the Wright brothers … [there are] endless opportunities.”

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2016

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2016 was awarded jointly to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström "for their contributions to contract theory."

While Physics and Chemistry are two of the fundamental pillars from which engineering springs, the third and final prize that we’ll review doesn’t have quite the same concrete connection. Sure, economics is attached to engineering in an important way. In fact, it’s often one of the drivers that decides how a product is made and whether it’s adopted.

Rather than being foundational, economics seems like more of a facilitator for engineering output. So, it should come as no surprise that the reason we’re including this year’s award winning idea, “work on contract theory,” in our Nobel recap.

It goes without saying that contracts exist everywhere in our lives. Contracts bind us to our cell phone carriers, credit cards, house notes, employers, employees and customers. Because contracts define the expectations that we have with third parties, the theories that underpin how they’re created is critically important for building contracts that are mutually beneficial to both parties.

While Hart and Holmström’s research has covered a wide range of ideas in contract theory, two of the larger concepts that underpin their work have been understanding how real-world problems such as information gaps and incomplete contracts affect how individuals within organizations behave.

Hart’s research focused on whether or not corporations should own and govern businesses that are typically viewed as public institutions. Most notably, Hart’s work has had an impact on whether the cost benefits of corporatizing public services like hospitals, school and even prisons are worth their reduction in quality.

Working in a related field of contract theory, Holmström’s work has been focused on how information gaps in a workplace can lead to “moral hazard in teams.” In layman’s terms, Holmström’s work asserts that if the income in a team is divided equally across a group, a slacker mentality could develop among less ambitious employees. To mitigate against this, Holmström has suggested that it’s best to have outside ownership of a firm. These outside actors could then create more flexible compensation structures and also boost incentives.

So, while Hart and Holmström’s work is decidedly academic, many of the MBAs that run larger engineering firms may have already started to digest these ideas and could possibly be putting them into practice. In the case of Holmström’s work, it might be that the shift to a contract workforce, rather than a set of hired engineers, is a strategy that today’s engineering leaders are beginning to employ. 

Bob Dylan, winner of the 2016 Nobel Literature Prize. Could his work be the most impactful to engineers?

Bob Dylan, winner of the 2016 Nobel Literature Prize. Could his work be the most impactful to engineers?

In the end, the work of this year’s crop of Nobel laureates does not appear to be quite ready for engineering prime time. But if there was one Nobel that had to be singled out as having an immediate impact on today’s engineers, it might be, strangely enough, the prize for Literature.

Bob Dylan, whom the Nobel committee cited as having “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition," has continued to have an impact on American and global culture since his first appearances in New York City in 1961. If you’ve been within earshot of a radio since those days, it’s likely that you’ve heard his music. It might be a long shot, but it could possibly have had an impact on the way you perceive the world and generate ideas.

While there are many engineers that live outside of Bob Dylan’s sphere of influence, the same can’t be said of music itself.

I don’t know about you, but for me a good song is always easier to digest than a profound revelation of how our Universe works. Trust me, I just tried to do so with this article.

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