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Scale of the Universe

The Nobel Prize is one of the most prestigious, awarded to individuals within the fields of science, literature and the promotion of peace.

Started in 1901, following a generous bequest by the late Swedish scientist and entrepreneur Alfred Nobel, recipients are recognised as having discovered, developed or created groundbreaking contributions in their areas of work.

In 2011, prizes were awarded for the following discoveries in science. You can learn more about these and other prize winners on the official Nobel Prize website.


Daniel Schectman

What did he discover?

Quasi-crystals, described by Professor Martyn Poliakoff as meaning ‘sort-of’ crystals. After examining the formation of crystals from oxides with an electromagnetic microscope at an almost atomic level, Schectman realised that these crystals had ten-fold symmetry. Meaning that they could be rotated ten times creating a perfect symmetry each time, before returning to their original position. It had previously been thought that both five and tenfold symmetry in all shapes was impossible.

Why are they important?

Crystals usually form in ultra-regular patterns, definable by their relationship to the atoms next to them. This pattern is repeated throughout the structure and as such is predictable. Quasi-crystals repeat in what is referred to as a ‘Penrose Tiling’ pattern, and have changed this definition. This has fundamentally altered understanding of crystals and, in turn, the behaviour of the matter that forms them.


Saul Perimutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Reiss

What did they discover?

By measuring the distances of supernovae, two separate teams were able to conclude that the Universe around us is expanding at an increasing rate.

Why is this important?

As part of the Big Bang theory the Universe was already thought to be expanding, but the fact that it is accelerating is a new discovery. The scientists involved have also developed the investigation into ‘dark energy’, which is thought to make up three quarters of the Universe but which is yet to be identified definitively. It has been suggested that dark energy is the force behind the expansion and the accelerating speed opens up a new previously unknown discussion on the beginning – and possibly end – of the Universe.

Physiology or Medicine

Bruce A. Beutler, Jules A. Hoffman and Ralph M. Steinman

What did they discover?

The prize has been split between Beutler and Hoffmann for their work in innate immunity, and Steinman for his work on the dendritic cell and adaptive immunity.

Why is it important?

Immunology, or the study of the immune system, is a constantly changing field due to the ability of our bodies, and diseases and viruses that attack, to mutate. Innate immunity is the fundamental, pre-existing ability of the body to defend itself and Beutler and Hoffmann have discovered how this is first triggered with certain protein receptors and microorganisms. Steinman discovered the dendritic cell in 1973 and showed its relation to T cell one of the most crucial to the human immune system that adapt to disease. His work for the Nobel Prize has solidified these findings to show that dendritic cells can be used to activate T cells, enabling them to fight off disease. Both discoveries have enormous implications in the development of preventing and fighting disease as well one of the most basic and important functions of the body.

Steinman was awarded the prize posthumously having died three days before the announcement was made. He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer, which was being tackled with a course of treatment based upon his own research.