Our Earth teems with billions of human beings, all working, thinking, playing and plotting their way through the maze-like distractions of daily living. Amid the chaos, some of us remain focused and disciplined enough to forge entirely new ways of approaching life, the universe and the meaning of it all. And some of those people win Nobel Prizes.
Nobel Prizes aren't your run-of-the-mill, sticky-backed, gold-star award. Established in 1895 by the will of Swedish inventor and philanthropist Alfred Nobel, the prizes recognize advances in scientific and cultural fields -- literature, peace, economics, chemistry, physics and medicine.
The recipients, called laureates, receive a diploma, a gold medal and a cash prize that, these days, generally exceeds $1 million. All prizes must go to individuals, with the exception of the Peace Prize, which can be awarded to an organization. Sometimes, the prizes are awarded to multiple people, but rules stipulate that each prize can be shared by no more than three.
First awarded in 1901, the Nobel prizes have since been given out 573 times to 900 people and organizations. Some people have received the awards more than once. Typically, each prize is awarded every year, but in years where there are no exceptional accomplishments befitting a Nobel, a prize may sit idle.
The prizes are, shall we say, a big deal. But more important is the work that they recognize. Laureates are the thinking person's thinkers, people who dedicate their lives to unveiling the secrets of our existence. In doing so, they help propel humankind's collective intelligence higher. In this article, we'll introduce you to 10 of these game-changing individuals.
Let's review some of the circumstances of our first laureate. Oppressive, violent regime? Check. Indefinite political imprisonment? Check. That's just a day in the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, perhaps one of the most persistent political dissidents ever and the winner of the 1991 Peace Prize.
She wasn't allowed to leave Burma (also known as Myanmar) to receive her prize, however, until 2012, or two decades after winning. In the meantime, she'd been detained by Burma's militaristic regime, which saw her work for democracy and human rights as a threat to the established power structure.
Aung San Suu Kyi actually won the country's general election in 1990. But even before all of the votes were counted, she was placed under house arrest and would remain so intermittently until 2010. To ward off loneliness and despair, she meditated, she planned and she persisted.
Upon her final release from house arrest, she jumped immediately into politics again. The party she heads, National League for Democracy, won by a landslide in a 2015 election, although she is barred from becoming president because of her sons' foreign citizenship.
For every technological advance, there are trade-offs and potential side effects. Thanks to the work of Hermann Muller, who won the 1946 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, people realized the importance of tempering our knowledge with safety and care.
Muller won his prize for proving that X-rays cause mutations (called X-ray mutagenesis) in the human body. In the mid-1920s, he'd gathered significant evidence that exposing Drosophila flies to X-rays caused genetic mutations that shortened their lifespans. He was certain that the same kind of damage would occur in humans.
Although he'd been trying to publicize his work for around 20 years, it took the World-War II atomic bombings of Japan to underscore the dangers of radiation, X-rays and nuclear fallout. It was then that the Nobel committee finally recognized his research.
Muller's discoveries, as well as his anti-nuclear weapons politics, made him an invaluable counterweight to the world-changing technological advances of the Atomic Age.
These days, we almost take for granted the facts of DNA and its fundamental role as a building block of life as we know it. But DNA was a mystery until Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins began unraveling these minute, double-helix structures.
For their work, the three won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. In discovering the molecular structure of nucleic acids, as well as conveying its importance in relaying information throughout a living organism, the three helped blaze a trail for all sorts of new genetic advances.
This prize did come with a notable asterisk. Before Crick and company made their discoveries, biophysicist Rosalind Franklin found a way to photograph DNA. Crick's group used those images as a turning point for their research. However, her insights were overshadowed somewhat by her male counterparts', and she died before she could address the matter with the Nobel committee, which has strict rules against honoring people posthumously.
He had a dream, and he didn't write it off as a fanciful midnight vision. Instead, Martin Luther King, Jr. pursued his dream in full daylight and in the face of scorn and cynicism. He paid for it with his life.
In a country riven by racial discrimination and a legacy of slavery, King promoted equality and freedom for everyone. Furthermore, he pressed his agenda without a call for arms. Instead, he touted non-violent demonstrations and activism.
It all began with a famous flashpoint. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Ala. This incident led to a successful 382-day bus boycott led by King, and it cemented his role as a leader for blacks in the United States.
After the boycott, and in the face of government and cultural intimidation, he hit the road to spread his message, speaking more than 2,500 times and traveling more than 6 million miles. Eventually, his means subverted a deeply rooted culture of discrimination. In doing so, he won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and was the youngest winner ever at the tender age of 35.
King was assassinated in 1968, but his legacy has inspired freedom-loving people all over the world.
Ivan Pavlov may be best known by memorable sound bites, such as "Pavlov's dogs" or the "Pavlovian response." But his sprawling impact on science can't be reduced to such concise phrases.
Pavlov won the 1904 Nobel in physiology. He's best known for his research on conditioned reflexes. In his most famous experiments, he would ring a bell every time he gave food to dogs. After repeating this process over and over again, the dogs would eventually begin salivating simply at the sound of the bell. It wasn't long before people realized that humans weren't all that different from dogs. We're all conditioned to respond certain ways -- both good and bad -- to various stimuli.
Pavlov's insights opened new doors in psychology and behaviorism, and they altered the way people perceive their own behaviors. He was so well-regarded in the Soviet Union and around the world that the Soviet government couldn't muzzle his outspoken condemnation of Communism. By the time he won the Nobel, he was already one of the most renowned scientists in the world, and his discoveries still reverberate today.
She's a virtual brand name when it comes to charity. Mother Teresa won the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize for her unending work with some of the world's most impoverished people.
In 1950, Mother Teresa launched a Catholic organization called the Missionaries of Charity, which began its work in India, helping to ease the suffering of poor, sick and orphaned people. In time, the charity grew to care for AIDS sufferers and people displaced by war, famine and other catastrophes, both natural and human-caused.
She remained committed to the charity for more than 40 years. She died in 1997, but many carry on her mission. Her organization is still active in more than 130 countries, with thousands of sisters tending to those in need. In doing so, they maintain a humanitarian presence in communities where no one else has the means or will to help.
Humankind doesn't advance without, well, humans. That's why medical advances are so critical to each and every one of us. Sir Alexander Fleming, along with Sir Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Howard Florey, made one of the most important medical discoveries ever and, as a result, won the 1945 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
In his rather unclean research lab, and by accident, Fleming realized that a mold growing in a petri dish had killed adjacent Staphylococci bacteria. Thus began his experiments with the mold, called Penicillium notatum, which eventually resulted in penicillin-based antibiotics.
These drugs were effective against all sorts of diseases that had ravaged humans for centuries, including tuberculosis, gangrene, syphilis and many other bacterial infections. As a result, untold lives were improved or spared.
Founded in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1863, the Red Cross is committed to aiding wounded and sick people, regardless of nationality, in times of war. The Red Cross doesn't help only military personnel; it also seeks to alleviate the suffering of civilians caught up in the strife of violent conflicts.
During the World Wars, the Red Cross monitored adherence to the Geneva Convention and documented any violations. Its volunteers also visited prisoner-of-war camps to ensure humane treatment of captives, and they even arranged for prisoner exchanges.
The Red Cross tracked POWs, delivered mail to prison camps and generally served as a vital link between families and soldiers during war. As war spread across the globe, the Red Cross proved that the better side of humanity could persist in the face of bullets and bombs.
From a physics perspective, Albert Einstein helped to overhaul not just the entire world but also the entire universe. His concepts were so far-reaching that, in some ways, they turned our perception of the very nature of reality inside out.
Einstein went to school to receive a teaching degree for chemistry and math. When he couldn't find a job, he went to work at the Swiss patent office. There, in his spare time, his busy mind took up big questions in theoretical physics.
Einstein discovered mass-energy equivalence and also tackled theories of relativity. He won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the photoelectric effect, which refers to the ejection of electrons from another material in response to light.
His explanation demonstrated that light is made of particles, which then led to the development of the photoelectric cell. This, in turn, resulted in countless inventions, including television, motion pictures and many others.
Perhaps more importantly, his research evolved our understanding of physics, including quantum theory. His forward thinking didn't just nudge science and technology forward; it shoved those disciplines into entirely new territory.
Marie Curie was a selfless, quiet woman. She was also a brilliant scientist. Not only did her work transform the way scientists viewed our world, but she also stands as a cultural gatecrasher for the ages.
Curie, a French-Polish scientist, was born in 1867 and spent much of her professional life investigating the principles of radioactivity. In 1903, she and her husband Pierre, along with Henri Becquerel, received the Nobel Prize for their physics work on radiation-related phenomena.
As if one Nobel wasn't enough, in 1911, she snagged the Nobel in chemistry for her discoveries of radium and polonium. This time, she didn't have to share it with anyone, making her one of very few people to have won prizes in two different fields.
At the outbreak of World War I, she used her radiation knowledge to construct mobile X-ray machines for the battlefield. She did much of the X-ray work herself and also trained other women to take X-rays, helping doctors find bullets and shrapnel in wounded soldiers.
In an era when women were in many ways considered inferior to men, Curie more than proved her worth and left a scientific legacy that continues to affect medicine and technology in untold ways. And her genius was contagious -- her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, received a Nobel in chemistry in 1935.
Curie is a figurehead for the Nobel Prize. She, along with all of the other Nobel winners, stands as evidence that this prestigious prize can highlight humankind's best achievements.
Luis Alvarez was involved in many scientific exploits, from the Manhattan Project to discovering hidden pyramid chambers. Learn more at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Nobel Laureates Whose Work Changed the World
Nobel Prize laureates sometimes find themselves on pedestals, lofted there by adoring fans or the media. Dig into the personal lives of any of them, however, and you'll find they're as flawed and human as the rest of us. Still, most of them have something in common -- persistence -- which elevates their life's work to a higher plane. In doing so, they really do earn the honor and legacy bestowed to them by a Nobel Prize. These prizes are one way we can remember the deeds, and the tireless work, of the people who strove to better our species.
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