As has been the case for more than a century, the first days of October are marked by an event that attracts the attention of the global scientific community: the Nobel Prizes Physiology or Medicine, Physics and Chemistry. Although the verdicts of each year are not exempt from discussion, it is undeniable that the sum they distribute and the prestige they imply do not go unnoticed.
To beat the delivery of next Tuesday, the Department of Physics of the University of Buenos Aires and the Balseiro Institute some researchers were asked to risk candidates.
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a window to the brain
The one chosen by Enzo Tagliazucchi, physicist and neuroscientist, professor and researcher at the Department of Physics of the Faculty of Exact Sciences of the UBA, researcher at Conicet and director of the laboratory “Science, culture and complexity” is Seiji Ogawa, 86-year-old Japanese physicist. “What he did is interesting because it is one of those few cases in which there is no controversy about the authorship of his discovery,” explains Tagliazucchi. He presented it in a paper of 1990 published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) and had a huge impact.”
Ogawa’s achievement was the realization that when neurons fire and process information, they fire “action potentials,” and then need energy supplied by the blood to return to their baseline state. The mechanism by which that energy is generated is a chemical reaction involving the oxygen carried by the hemoglobin molecules. At the same time, neurons that are not oxygenated have different magnetic properties.
“Thus, the signal measured by the magnetic resonance technique is distorted [en las distintas regiones del cerebro de acuerdo con su actividad] and one can translate it into the volume of oxygenated blood that is reaching that area –explains Tagliazucchi–. This, added to the very good spatial resolution of this equipment, made it possible to build a map of the brain that today maps with precision to cubic millimeters which areas are receiving blood flow, and this is an indirect marker of where there are neurons ‘firing’. In other words, what he invented was the technique known as ‘functional magnetic resonance imaging’, which makes it possible to map in real time and non-invasively the activity of the brain of the person who is inside the resonator”.
The finding has applications in many areas, some of which, like cognitive neuroscience, are almost entirely made possible by this breakthrough. “Before, you had to wait for a war to happen in order to study the brain, analyze behavioral deficits and locate different functions,” says Tagliazucchi. Now anyone can do a study without causing harm. And the same with other organs. Ogawa gave neuroscience a remarkable boost.”
Quantum Revolution 2.0
the favorites of alex fainsteinphysicist, graduate and professor at the Balseiro Institute, as well as a researcher at Conicet, who directs the Photonics and Optoelectronics Laboratory of the Bariloche Atomic Center, are two French: Michel Devoret and Alain Aspect.
“The first quantum revolution transformed the last century, it made possible the existence of transistors, electronics, lasers,” says Fainstein. Michel Devoret has to do with what is known as the ‘second quantum revolution’, which is the one that presents the most ‘esoteric’ aspects, such as entanglement [un concepto introducido en 1935 por Einstein, Podolsky y Rosen, que se verifica cuando dos partículas que se encuentran físicamente separadas se comunican entre sí y que no tiene equivalente en la física clásica] or the ‘teleportation’ [un proceso en el cual se transmite información cuántica de una posición a otra alejada de la primera] . They are ‘crazy’ ideas, but in which many countries are making enormous investments, of billions of dollars, and which promise to transform our reality”.
Devoret is a pioneer in the development of very small electronic circuits that function as quantum qubits (the basis of quantum computers). Alain Aspect experimentally proved that something that happens far away can affect what happens elsewhere in the universe.
“The most striking application of these advances gave rise to the current quantum computer,” says Fainstein. It’s a way of computing in which you don’t have classic ‘bits’, which can only have two values (1 or 0), but can be any combination of two values with a certain probability. It has been shown that this probabilistic nature of quantum physics can be used to perform parallel computing and break all algorithms, for example security algorithms. You could know not only everything that people are doing and saying, but also what they did and said in the last 20 years. That is why quantum cryptography is developed, which nobody can spy on. But it is also anticipated that with this technology it will be possible to calculate structures of atoms, of molecules for medical use… The applications that are imagined are enormous”.
Augusto Roncaglio, a UBA researcher and member of the quantum information group, agrees with Fainstein regarding Alain Aspect (“what he achieved was to entangle a very large number of photons in a short time,” he clarifies) and adds the Austrian physicist Anton Zeilinger, who also contributed in this area. The latter’s team was the first to verify a quantum interference between macromolecules. During his research on entangled photons he managed to teleport two from one bank of the Danube to the other.
The Borges of Physics
Daniel Dominguez, a graduate and professor at the Balseiro Institute, a researcher at Conicet and CNEA in the area of condensed matter, comments that there are also cases in physics like Borges’s, who was a candidate every year, but never received it. “One of them could be Aspect,” he slips it.
Among his select group are Charles Bennett, one of the pioneers in the field of quantum computing who is currently working at IBM on problems of information exchange, and Israeli-born physicist David Deutsch, a fellow of the Royal Society. “Both gave shape to the idea of quantum programming and the universal quantum computer,” explains Domínguez. He also includes John Martinis, Google’s quantum project leader.
To substantiate your choices, Silvia Goyanes, director of the Laboratory of Polymers and Materials of the Department of Physics of the UBA, reviewed Nobel’s will. “There he says that the distinction is established ‘to reward those who during the previous year have conferred the greatest benefit to humanity’ –he underlines–. And in the area of physics, to ‘a person who has made the most important discovery or invention in the field of physics’. But if one looks at the report of the Swedish Inventors Society, he finds that 80% of the Nobel Prizes go to research, while only 20% go to inventions. As for the theme, it seems that one year it is cosmology, another, particles, and another, optics. Although the third Nobel Prize in Physics went to Marie Curie, only 10% were awarded to women. A striking fact is that although scientists are rewarded for their research, these same people have several patents. One thing that surprised me is that if you go through the literature, you can see that Einstein himself has 50 patents. So, if one wonders what is the subject that revolutionized our lives, everything indicates that it has to do with the physics of nanostructures for flexible electronics, supercapacitors [con densidades de energía mayores que los convencionales]organic solar cells, flexible screens… All this is going to be a revolution from the point of view of new energies”.
Although he clarified that he is not a specialist in the subject, he selected three figures of special relevance in the field: Yongfang Li, Xiangfeng Duan (both born in China, but currently in the United States) and Cherie Kagan. “The latter realizes how nanometric particles or nanocrystals of a semiconductor can be placed inside an ink, a liquid, and thus build circuits to create high-performance flexible electronics,” she highlights.
Lucía Cabrera, doctoral student in Physics at the Balseiro Institute and Conicet fellow in the Particles and Fields group at the Bariloche Atomic Center, proposes Takashi Taniguchi. “He is a Japanese scientist who works at the National Institute of Materials Science in Tsukuba, Japan,” says Cabrera. He generated hexagonal crystals of carbon nitrides that catapulted him to fame with his academic colleague, Kenji Watanabe. Because it is important? These structures allow to study two-dimensional materials very well; that is, one atom thick. The most popular of these is graphene and, in fact, the sheets they produce have allowed in recent years to produce some so-called ‘magic angle’ devices, whose superconducting or insulating properties depend (as the name implies) on the angle with which the next layer of graphene is deposited. It is wonderful”.
According to Guillermo Silva, a physicist at the National University of La Plata, another who could win a Nobel this year would be Alexander Polyakov, a cardinal figure in quantum field theory: “He represents two complementary aspects: he is someone who was isolated,” he says. Silva– and formulated fundamental ideas for the discovery of the ‘instanton’, which makes it possible to explain an anomaly when describing fundamental particles. For me, he is a crack. He realized that there were very dissimilar phenomena that were explained with the same tools and led to a paradigm shift regarding how we understand nature to work at the microscopic level”.
Finally, Julian Amette Estrada, a doctoral student in the Fluids Group, confessed that he chose someone from his research area, David Ruelle, a Belgian physicist-mathematician, who worked on dynamic systems and developed a theory of turbulence. “I don’t think it’s likely that he’ll win, because last year there have been related advances, but he’s someone who ticks a lot of boxes for the Nobel Prize,” he says.
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Who wins the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics?