Hall of fame

2021 Nobel Prizes and beyond: 8 discoveries shaping the future of science

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JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, the Nobel Prize committee honors groundbreaking scientific achievements in three categories: physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine.

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Many of these advancements are decades in the making and have already benefitted humanity.

And despite the categories, their impact isn’t limited to just one field.

Nobel winners often work on interdisciplinary research that has broad-ranging applications and influence on our understanding of the universe, pushing the boundaries of scientific exploration.

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Here are 8 Nobel-winning projects that will influence science for years to come — including the 2021 Prizes.

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8. Physics, 2021

This year’s prize in physics was awarded to three scientists who pioneered the study of a complex and urgent issue: anthropogenic climate change.

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They modeled the many factors that contribute to climate change, which in turn has allowed researchers to accurately predict how it plays out.

7. Physiology or Medicine, 2021

While it’s part of our everyday experience, mysteries still surround our sense of touch. This year’s two Nobel winners in Physiology or Medicine helped unlock new knowledge about our ability to feel.

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Physiologist David Julius and molecular biologist Ardem Patapoutian used chili peppers and pressure-sensitive cells, respectively, to better understand how we perceive heat, cold, and pressure.

6. Chemistry, 2021

This year the Prize went to two scientists who, independent of each other, developed a new type of catalyst — substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions. This third type of catalyst is called asymmetric organocatalysis.

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The work done by Benjamin List and David MacMillan benefits pharmaceutical research and “has made chemistry greener,” per the Nobel committee:

“Using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that can capture light in solar cells.”

5. Physics, 2020

Black holes are some of the most mysterious and powerful objects in the universe. Three scientists were awarded a Nobel last year for shaping how we understand them.

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The award was given for a twofold discovery: that black holes are a prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and that there’s a black hole at the center of our own galaxy.

4. Chemistry, 2020

Two scientists who pioneered the development of CRISPR gene editing were awarded a Nobel last year.

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Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were honored for their work, which has broad-reaching applications, from medicine to agriculture.

3. Physics, 2019

As astrophysicists and cosmologists probe further into space, it’s important to understand how the universe expands over time, and what lies beyond our galaxy.

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The 2019 physics prize was split between a scientist who helped create a model of the universe that maps its expansion and two others who discovered the first exoplanet in 1995.

2. Physiology or Medicine, 2018

Two researchers who fine-tuned a type of immunotherapy that uses viruses to fight cancer were honored for this prize in 2018.

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Because viruses activate the immune system, targeting them to infect cancer cells can enable the body’s own defenses to beat cancer.

This technique has been about 150 years in the making.

1. Physiology or Medicine, 2017

The winners of this prize were the first to explain why your urge to take a midday nap is simply wired into your biology.

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The three scientists who split the 2017 Nobel for Physiology or Medicine pioneered research into how circadian rhythms work.