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Oct 30, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

6 mins read

The Lasting Legacy of Alfred Nobel

A plaque of Alfred Nobel is displayed at the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Receiving the Nobel Prize is considered the pinnacle of many scientists', economists' and humanitarians' careers, recognizing significant discoveries. These tend to have lasting geopolitical consequences.
(CHRIS JACKSON/Getty Images)

When Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel died in 1896, he left the world with two major legacies: dynamite and the Nobel Prize. The latter, though perhaps less practical than the former, was no less important. In his last will and testament, Nobel dictated that his estate be used to bestow "prizes to those who…shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind." He believed the fund would serve as a kind of penance for the destructive force his explosive creation had unleashed upon the world. Five years later, the first Nobel Prize was awarded.

Today, receiving the Nobel Prize is considered the pinnacle of many scientists', economists' and humanitarians' careers. Each year, the prize is given to (and often shared between) people who have made discoveries that have revolutionized their fields. And revolutions — even those in the sciences instead of in politics — tend to have lasting geopolitical consequences. 

The discoveries made by this year's winners have already begun to influence the geopolitical landscape. By examining them, we can get a better look at how the fields of science and technology intersect with geopolitics to reshape the world's future.

Physiology or Medicine: Reducing the Economic Impact of Disease

This year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to three researchers who isolated natural products that combat parasitic diseases. Irish scientist William Campbell and Japanese researcher Satoshi Omura received their accolades for work published in 1979 that led to the isolation of avermectin and to the discovery of its anti-parasitic activity. Their research eventually resulted in the development of a class of drugs that is now used to treat hundreds of millions of people suffering from parasitic diseases each year. The third winner, Tu Youyou, participated in a Chinese initiative to find new malaria treatments; she published her findings in 1981. Her team successfully isolated artemisinin, a compound that has become the anchor of the first-line combination treatment for malaria. But the need for further research doesn't end with the awarding of a Nobel Prize. Cases of artemisinin-resistant malaria are now becoming more common, and while a malaria vaccine is poised for deployment on a larger scale, it is not as effective as researchers would like.

Nobel Prize winner Tu Youyou. She participated in a Chinese initiative to find new malaria treatments; she published her findings in 1981. Her team successfully isolated artemisinin, a compound that has become the anchor of the first-line combination treatment for malaria.
Nobel Prize winner Tu Youyou.
(AFP/Getty Images)

Parasitic diseases, especially malaria, play an important role in geopolitics because of the large economic burden they disproportionately inflict on developing nations. Malaria, endemic in much of Africa and Southeast Asia, carries an estimated global cost of $12 billion each year. Over the past decade, modern treatments have successfully managed to cut the annual number of deaths from malaria in half, but the disease continues to place a heavy burden on the worst afflicted countries. Many of these states have larger working-age populations than those in the developed world and have room for economic growth. Some are poised to replace China as the low-end manufacturing hubs of the world as China transitions toward high-end production. If many individuals cannot contribute to their workforces, whether because they are sick themselves or caring for family members, endemic diseases can lead to a dramatic decline in productivity that can have very real economic consequences.

Physics: Eliminating Energy Constraints

Meanwhile, in the category of physics, Japan's Takaaki Kajita and Canada's Arthur B. McDonald shared the 2015 Nobel Prize for their research on subatomic particles. The two scientists, working on separate teams, both proved that neutrinos have mass and presented their findings in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Kajita, as it happens, became the second person from his institute to win the coveted award.

Nobel Prize winner Takaaki Kajita. In the category of physics, he and Arthur B. McDonald shared the 2015 Nobel Prize for their research on subatomic particles. The two scientists, working on separate teams, both proved that neutrinos have mass and presented their findings in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Nobel Prize winner Takaaki Kajita.
(CHRIS MCGRATH/Getty Images)

While tangible findings, such as a treatment for a well-known disease, make the reasoning behind some choices for the Nobel Prize more obvious at first glance than others, the discovery of the elusive neutrino's mass is no less consequential than the creation of an anti-malarial drug. Neutrinos are subatomic particles produced during radioactive decay. Gaining a better understanding of these tiniest of components in our universe can help us to better understand fusion reactions — a necessary first step if the widespread use of fusion power, cold or otherwise, is to ever become a reality. While extensive research must still be done to make this goal feasible, fusion power has the potential to rewrite the paradigms of global energy consumption. If countries are not forced to rely on fuel sources that have limited reserves, their individual energy constraints would no longer shape the geopolitical dynamics of the international community. Somewhere in the distant future, a world awaits that does not rely on oil and natural gas — and that does not elevate the importance of countries that export them.

Chemistry: Combating Resource Scarcity

Finally, the Nobel Prize in chemistry went to three scientists for their groundbreaking research on how cells repair the genetic information encoded in DNA. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Swedish scientist Tomas Lindahl, American biochemist Paul Modrich and Turkish-American molecular biologist Aziz Sancar each independently explored the different mechanisms by which cells repair errors that occur in DNA, whether because of exposure to foreign stimuli or as a natural part of development.

Swedish scientist Tomas Lindahl, American biochemist Paul Modrich and Turkish-American molecular biologist Aziz Sancar each independently explored the different mechanisms by which cells repair errors that occur in DNA, whether because of exposure to foreign stimuli or as a natural part of development.
Nobel Prize winner Tomas Lindahl.
(JUSTIN TALLIS/Getty Images)

In addition to the more obvious implications their discovery has for the treatment of cancer, a disease based on cellular mutations, it also serves to show just how important basic science is to continued technological advancement. Knowledge, be it in biology, physics or chemistry, is the foundation upon which other technological discoveries — including those whose impact on our daily lives is more readily visible — are built. A better understanding of cellular behavior, for instance, is crucial for the creation of biological technologies. Gene-editing tools such as CRISPR, which have received growing attention from the mainstream media in recent years, rely on the basic foundations of cellular and molecular biology and yet could have a sizable geopolitical impact. Gene-editing technology will play an increasingly important role in agricultural biotechnology over the next few decades as resource scarcity becomes a bigger concern for the global economy. For instance, it could enable the agricultural sector to produce more food with fewer resources by leading to the development of new varieties of plants that have higher yields or are drought resistant.

Looking Beyond the Scientific Community

Science, technology and geopolitics are intricately linked. Geographic constraints limit countries' options, but scientific and technological advances can often be the key to overcoming them. Improvements in sailing and navigation technologies made the Age of Exploration possible. The race to harness nuclear power redefined warfare. The advent of the Internet Age fundamentally changed how the world communicates and interacts. But the first seeds of knowledge that led to each of these disruptive technologies arose well before Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe or Harry Truman chose to bomb Japan. And as is true of many of the discoveries that win a Nobel Prize, their full impact stretched far beyond their immediate fields.

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