What Those Nifty Nobel Prizes Mean to You

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With all the lofty rhetoric floating around the annual Nobel Prize announcements, it's easy to lose sight of a simple truth: The laureates win because they've done something that has changed our everyday lives (or has the potential to), often in surprisingly simple ways. Here's our guide to the latest crop of prizewinners, and what they're really being lauded for:


WHO WON: Zhores I. Alferov (Russia), Herbert Kroemer (United States), Jack S. Kilby (United States)

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION OF WHY THEY WON: Alferov and Kroemer share half the prize for their work in "developing semiconductor heterostructures used in high-speed and opto-electronics" and Kilby takes his half for "his part in the invention of the integrated circuit."

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE REST OF US: The Nobel committee decided this was the year to honor the world of information technology. Alferov and Kroemer's semiconductors allow us to transmit information over fiber-optical cables, satellites and cell phones. Kilby played a key role in the development of the microchips that act as brains in our cars, washing machines and personal computers.


WHO WON: Alan J. Heege (United States), Alan G. MacDiarmid (United States), Hideki Shirakawa (Japan)

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION OF WHY THEY WON: All three won jointly for the "discovery and development of conductive polymers."

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE REST OF US: Scientists once spent a lot of time explaining why plastic did not conduct electricity. Heege, MacDiarmid and Shirakawa, however, won their Nobel for proving that plastics (or polymers) can be manipulated into a conductive state. The Nobel judges call the discovery critical not only to chemists and physicists, but also to ordinary folk; the conductive polymers are already in use on cell phone displays; in photo labs, where anti-static substances are applied to film; and in electromagnetic radiation shields on computer screens.


WHO WON: Arvid Carlsson (Sweden), Paul Greengard (United States), Eric Kandel (United States)

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION OF WHY THEY WON: For their collective role in discovering "the transduction of slow synaptic transmission signals in the nervous system"

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE REST OF US: When nerves in the brain can't communicate with one another, physical as well as psychiatric problems can arise. Carlsson and Greengard were instrumental in identifying the role of dopamine (a key brain chemical) as a transmitter, a discovery that has led to new treatments for Parkinson's and schizophrenia. Kandel's research showed that changing the speed of inner-brain transmissions can have profound effects on both short- and long-term memory.


WHO WON: Gao Xingjian (China)

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION OF WHY HE WON: "For an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama"

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE REST OF US: Gao's novels, "Soul Mountain" and "One Man's Bible," wowed the judges with their "uninhibited mutations and grotesque symbolic language of dreams" and "distinct images of contemporary society." If this sounds like your cup of (green) tea but you have had a hard time finding Chinese literature in Western bookstores or libraries, this Nobel could open the floodgates.


WHO WON: Kim Dae Jung (South Korea)

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION OF WHY HE WON: At last, some plain language from the Nobel folks!: "For his work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and East Asia in general, and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea in particular."

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE REST OF US: South Korean president Kim Dae Jung has become a universal symbol of morality and peace in the excruciatingly tense exchanges between North and South Korea. If peace prevails in this troubled region, Kim Dae Jung's spectacular efforts will deserve the lion's share of the credit.


WHO WON: James J. Heckman (United States), Daniel L. McFadden (United States)

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION OF WHY THEY WON: Heckman won for his "development of theory and methods for analyzing selective examples," and McFadden was chosen for his "development of theory and methods for analyzing discrete choice."

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE REST OF US: Both economists are giants in the field of microeconometrics, a discipline straddling the boundaries of statistics and economics. Heckman and McFadden created theory and methods to help sharpen the focus and heighten the accuracy of household polls, which will in turn help sociologists and economists better understand trends in employment, education and demographics.