Window to the Future
One great discovery can start a chain of innovation – and a glut of patents. What do recent winners of the Nobel Prize tell us about the future of science?
Andrew Rudhall and Mairi Rudkin |
Every autumn, the announcement of the year’s Nobel Prize winners prompts us to reflect on the contribution to mankind of the discoveries and inventions recognized by the committee since 1901. Alfred Nobel established the Nobel Prizes when he wrote his last will in 1895, leaving the majority of his wealth to a fund that was to be awarded:
“to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”
Nobel himself was a prolific inventor and secured patent protection for 355 of his inventions, most famously dynamite. However, many Nobel Prize-winning discoveries are not patentable in themselves. Patent law distinguishes between a ‘discovery’ and an ‘invention’, and whilst it is possible to obtain a patent for an invention, discoveries in themselves are excluded. However, the practical application of a newly-observed phenomenon or discovery can lead to thousands of patentable inventions, often across multiple disciplines.
To obtain a patent, an invention must not only be novel but also industrially applicable. That is to say, it needs to have some sort of technical use. At the outset, the real-world commercial applications of a newly-discovered phenomena may not be immediately apparent, so there may be some lag between the initial discovery of a phenomenon and subsequent patent applications covering the technical devices and methods developed as a result.
For example, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Isidor Isaac Rabi in 1944 for the discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). The development of NMR over the next seven decades is reflected in the history of the Nobel Prize and perfectly illustrates how a discovery in one area of science can have a profound impact on another. Indeed, the development of NMR techniques as a key characterization methodology in biology and chemistry was recognized by the Nobel Prizes for Chemistry in 1991 and 2002 and its use as a powerful diagnostic tool formed the basis for the 2003 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine (awarded to Lauterbur and Mansfield for their research in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)). At the time the prize was awarded to Lauterbur and Mansfield, MRI had become a routine diagnostic method and it was estimated that more than 60 million investigations using this technique were carried out annually worldwide.
Whilst it may not have been possible to patent the initial discovery of the phenomenon of nuclear magnetic resonance, the practical application of the technique has amazingly spawned over two million patent applications that refer to NMR and over 300,000 referencing MRI since 1944.
So what is the next world-changing discovery? In 2016, the Nobel Prize for chemistry was jointly awarded to Stoddart, Sauvage and Feringa for “the design and synthesis of molecular machines.” A machine is essentially a combination of interrelated parts that are able to move relative to one another in order to perform a function. The work of these three chemists has provided the building blocks to synthesize machines on a molecular scale – based on the principles of supramolecular chemistry, in which a number of molecular units are assembled together.
Since their initial research was published, it has been become increasingly clear that there are a huge number of real-world applications for these molecular machines, including the provision of novel materials, sensors, energy storage devices and molecular robots. Consequently, there is no doubt this new field of molecular engineering will lead to many new patent applications.
The Nobel Prizes awarded in each of the three areas of science could be said to provide a window to the future, with the discoveries of today giving rise to the inventions (and patent applications) of tomorrow. In any case, given the history of the Nobel Prizes, it is reasonable to suppose that mankind can look forward to a plethora of technical and practical advances resulting from the discoveries and work of the 2016 winners.