TIME Physics

Why LED Lights Won the Nobel Prize

Chances are you're using an LED right now

You might have heard that researchers, two Japanese and one American, recently won the Nobel Prize for Physics for inventing blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), but you might not know what LEDs are and why they’re important. With energy-saving light bulbs becoming more commonplace and smartphone use as widespread as ever, there might be more LEDs in your life than you realize.

TIME space

See the Most Stunning Moments From ‘Blood Moon’ Lunar Eclipse

Stargazers gazed in awe at a “Blood Moon” total lunar eclipse early Wednesday morning, with viewing opportunities across the Americas.

But if you missed the celestial display, never fear — SLOOH Community Observatory livestreamed the whole thing for everyone’s enjoyment, and TIME has highlights from the 3.5-hour broadcast right here.

Want a primer on the “Blood Moon” before taking a look? Read TIME Science Editor Jeffrey Kluger’s explanation of the phenomenon here.

TIME

2 Japanese, 1 American Win Nobel Prize in Physics

Shuji Nakamura Nobel Physics Prize LED Lights
American inventor Shuji Nakamura. Japanese scientists Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano and American Shuji Nakamura won the 2014 Nobel prize for Physics for inventing a new energy efficient and environmentally friendly light source, the LED, the award-giving body said on Oct. 7, 2014. Lehtikuva—Reuters

(STOCKHOLM) — Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan and U.S. scientist Shuji Nakamura won the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for the invention of blue light-emitting diodes — a new energy efficient and environment-friendly light source.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the invention is just 20 years old, “but it has already contributed to create white light in an entirely new manner to the benefit of us all.”

Akasaki, 85, is a professor at Meijo University and distinguished professor at Nagoya University. Amano, 54, is also a professor at Nagoya University, while the 60-year-old Nakamura is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The laureates triggered a transformation of lighting technology when they produced bright blue light from semiconductors in the 1990s, something scientist had struggled with for decades, the Nobel committee said.

Using the blue light, LED lamps emitting white light could be created in a new way.

“As about one fourth of world electricity consumption is used for lighting purposes, the LEDs contribute to saving the Earth’s resources,” the committee said.

Nakamura, who spoke to reporters in Stockholm over a crackling telephone line after being woken up by the phone call from the prize jury, said it was an amazing, and unbelievable feeling.

On Monday, U.S.-British scientist John O’Keefe split the Nobel Prize in medicine with Norwegian couple May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for breakthroughs in brain cell research that could pave the way for a better understanding of diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The Nobel award in chemistry will be announced Wednesday, followed by the literature award on Thursday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. The economics prize will be announced next Monday, completing the 2014 Nobel Prize announcements.

Worth 8 million kronor ($1.1 million) each, the Nobel Prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896. Besides the prize money, each laureate receives a diploma and a gold medal.

Nobel, a wealthy Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite, provided few directions for how to select winners, except that the prize committees should reward those who “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

Last year’s physics award went to Britain’s Peter Higgs and Belgian colleague Francois Englert for helping to explain how matter formed after the Big Bang.

TIME animals

Reindeer Radiation Levels Unusually High This Year

Reindeer Caravan in Tromso, Norway
Getty Images

Blame mushroom season

Rudolph’s nose might be glowing just a little bit brighter this year, for all the wrong reasons: radiation levels in Norwegian reindeer sharply rose this year.

According to a Norwegian environmental report, scientists in September observed 8,200 becquerel (a unit of measurement for radioactivity) of Celsium-137 per kilo in reindeer, a noticeable jump from 2012, when reindeer in the same area had only 1,500 becquerel of Celsium-137 per kilo. (600 becquerel per kilo is the safe limit for sheep meat.)

“This year is extreme,” Lavrans Skuterud, researcher at the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority told Norway’s The Local.

But Skuterud knows the source of the radiation levels: mushrooms. Specifically, the gypsy mushroom (Cortinarius caperatus), which can absorb a lot of radiation lingering in that part of the globe nearly 30 years after the Chernobyl disaster.

“This year, there has been extreme amounts of mushroom,” he said. “In addition, the mushroom season has lasted for a long time. And the mushroom has grown very high up on the mountains.”

[The Local]

TIME anniversary

SpaceShipOne’s Dubious Birthday

Going somewhere? The start of SpaceShipOne's maybe-historic flight in 2004
Going somewhere? The start of SpaceShipOne's maybe-historic flight in 2004 HECTOR MATA; AFP/Getty Images

A decade ago the first private spacecraft crossed the boundary of space and big promises followed. But there've been big disappointments too.

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when you achieve something great? Easy: don’t start promising more greatness to come. It’s fine to hoist a Super Bowl trophy, but that’s not the time to predict a threepeat over the next couple years. Ditto the first-time Oscar winner who goes public about buying a new mantlepiece for all the statuettes to come; ditto too the one-hit wonder who’s already boasting about one day joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

That’s just the hubris that afflicted Burt Rutan, Paul Allen and the other folks behind SpaceShipOne a decade ago when their little rocket plane won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, beating 25 other teams from 10 nations competing to be the first private group to pull off a piloted suborbital space flight twice within two weeks. After that mission was accomplished, Rutan, the ship’s designer, publicly predicted that the big aerospace players like Boeing would realize they had just lost out in the most promising new market of all: space tourism. “I think they’re looking at each other now and saying, ‘We’re screwed,'” he averred.

Almost immediately, he and Allen—the co-founder of Microsoft—licensed the SpaceShipOne technology to Virgin Atlantic’s Sir Richard Branson, who predicted a five-ship fleet with a five-person capacity on each vehicle within three years. So how’s all that working out?

SpaceShipOne, for all of the understandable applause its gutsy mission earned, was always overhyped. The ship was required to achieve an altitude of at least 100 km (62.5 mi.)—which it beat slightly—then arc over in three minutes of weightless flight and return safely to earth. Nifty stuff, but it’s also something the U.S. accomplished with the flight of Alan Shepard as long ago as 1961, and the old Soviet Union didn’t even bother with since they were capable of achieving orbit—where you can get some real flying done.

The scientific applications for SpaceShipOne are limited too. Yes, there are some basic experiments that can be run during the brief cosmic toe-dip of a suborbital flight, involving testing hardware in space conditions, studying the behavior of fluids and other substances, and making brief atmospheric measurements. But if popgun missions like that could do the really substantive stuff, we wouldn’t have built a massive orbiting lab like the International Space Station (ISS).

Instead, the promise has always been space tourism—offering paying passengers the chance to experience space and, after a fashion, call themselves astronauts. There are now up to 20 companies around the world competing in this new game—including big names like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic—but none have flown so much as a single paying customer.

Branson’s Virgin Galactic is the closest to delivering. His SpaceShipTwo is the direct descendant of the original Rutan-Allen ship, and he has signed up a long list of potential passengers who have all put down deposits toward their $200,000 fare. Last year, TIME attended something of a pep rally at the outfit’s Mojave Desert headquarters, during which hundreds of those passengers-on-standby gathered, mingled, ate high-end finger food and cheered speeches and videos hyping the ride to come. But a promised test flight of the ship was scrubbed due to high winds and that day’s much-repeated pledge that the spacecraft’s maiden space trip would occur before the end of the year has slipped—as it has so many times before—this time to what Branson describes only as “earlyish in the new year.” As recently as August, he said he’d be “bitterly disappointed” if he didn’t make his before-2015 deadline.

None of this is to say that space tourism is doomed, but it is to say that the thinking behind it has always been flawed. The Ansari XPrize was modeled after the 1919 Orteig Prize, which offered $25,000 (the equivalent of $344,000 in 2014) to the first person who could fly nonstop from New York to Paris. Charles Lindbergh won that one in 1927 and before long, his historic trip became one anybody could make. But air travel is not space travel—an exponentially harder, riskier and costlier proposition. SpaceShipOne—despite the decade-old hoopla—was never the achievement of a dream, it was merely the beginning of one. Its true fulfillment is still many years away.

TIME Pictures of the Week

Pictures of the Week: Sept. 26 – Oct. 3

From growing protests in Hong Kong and an intruder at the White House, to child jockeys in Indonesia and George Clooney’s wedding, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME Environment

Good News, Southern California: The Smog Is Going Away

Snow covered San Gabriel Mountains rise behind the downtown Los Angeles skyline on Dec. 27, 2012.
Snow covered San Gabriel Mountains rise behind the downtown Los Angeles skyline on Dec. 27, 2012. Nick Ut—AP

A new study says that cancer-causing pollutants have dropped more than 50%

Southern California’s air quality is getting better, according to a study released Thursday. Cancer-causing pollutants have dropped over 50% on average since 2005, the last time the South Coast Air Quality Management District checked air quality extensively.

Efforts to reduce emissions from diesel trucks and other vehicles can account for a great deal of the drop. California residents may have noticed the positive effects of such endeavors in the sky: smog rarely browns out the mountains in the region now.

Though the air is getting healthier overall, small pockets in the region still contain many toxic pollutants, including the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and areas near freeways. And the risks for cancer because of pollutants in the air are still some of the highest in the nation, according to the Associated Press.

[AP]

TIME Disease

What It Will Take to End Polio

President Franklin D. Roosevelt leaves his home at 49 East 65th Street for a short visit to his family estate at Hyde Park, north of New York City on Sept. 27, 1933.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt leaves his home at 49 East 65th Street for a short visit to his family estate at Hyde Park, north of New York City on Sept. 27, 1933. Martin Mcevilly—NY Daily News/Getty Images

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Franklin Roosevelt never knew the Pakistani babies battling polio today, but he knew their pain. The world is fighting to end that suffering forever

You can still see the ramps and rails at Franklin Roosevelt’s house on East 65th Street in Manhattan—even though they’ve been gone for decades. They’re easily visible in the pictures that decorate the home. They’re visible, too, in the popular iconography of Roosevelt, who was photographed standing countless times after being paralyzed by polio in 1921, but always with a hand on a bannister, an arm on an aide, a cane in his grip—and ramps and rails at the ready.

The six-story Roosevelt house, where the family lived from 1908 until their move to the White House in 1933, is now owned—and was restored—by New York’s Hunter College. These days it’s a place of learning and policy conferences. But it is also a place of historical serendipity.

“When the house was built, it was one of the first private residences in New York that had its own elevators,” Hunter president Jennifer Raab told me as we toured the building this morning. Those became indispensable once FDR became paralyzed, and it was in that house that his kitchen cabinet thus gathered in the four months between his election in 1932 and his inauguration 1933. “The New Deal was born here,” Raab says.

For FDR, there were abundant compensations for polio. As Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts makes clear, the disease deepened and grounded him. It made him a champion of children with polio—an effort that led to the March of Dimes and the later Salk and Sabin vaccines—and for that matter a champion of all people who suffered hardship. It was polio that gave Roosevelt a fuller temperament—and in turn gave the nation a fuller Roosevelt.

There are no such compensations for the handful of children around the world who still contract the crippling disease. On the same morning I was making my visit to the Roosevelt house, word came out of Pakistan that the country is on target to top 200 polio cases in 2014, its biggest caseload since 2000. Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic—the other two are Afghanistan and Nigeria, with 10 and six cases respectively so far this year—and it’s the only one in which the caseloads are moving in the wrong direction.

As recently as 2005, Pakistan’s case count was down to just 28, helping to push polio to the brink of eradication. That same year, however, religious leaders in northern Nigeria declared a boycott of the vaccine, claiming that it contained HIV and was intended to sterilize Muslim girls. This led to a wildfire spread of the Nigerian strain that stretched as far southeast as Indonesia.

But Nigeria got its house in order, and the hot zone now—a more challenging one—has shifted to Pakistan, particularly in the tribal areas in the north and in the mega-city of Karachi. Some of the problem is simply the crowded, unhygienic conditions in Karachi. But the bigger piece is the fighting in the tribal regions, which have made vaccinations difficult or impossible. That’s been exacerbated by Taliban gunmen, who have shot and killed 59 polio field workers and police officers trying to protect them since 2012.

“It’s a very sad thing,” Aziz Memon, head of Rotary International’s PolioPlus team, told TIME by phone from Pakistan today. “We’re trying to get vaccinators on the ground and into the field despite the ban. And now rains and flooding that have broken 100-year-old records are creating more problems.”

Rotary, which has been the point-organization for the eradication of polio for more than 25 years, is being assisted by the Gates Foundation, Save the Children and multiple other international groups, all working to push back against the Taliban blockade. Vaccinators routinely wait at bus stops around Pakistan, climbing aboard and looking for kids who have no vaccination records and administering the drops on the spot. Refugee camps in the war torn tribal regions provide another way of standing between the virus and the babies.

“When the virus is contained like this it’s a good opportunity to step in and control it,” says Memon. “We can also take advantage of the low-transmission season, which starts soon.”

The effort to snuff out polio altogether is more than merely the moral thing, it’s also the practical thing. Bill Gates repeatedly stresses that $1 billion spent per year over the next few years can save $50 billion of the next 20 years, money that would otherwise be spent treating polio and constantly fighting the brushfire war of vaccinating against outbreaks. Eliminate the disease for good and those costs go with it. What’s more, the delivery networks that are put in place to do the job can be easily repurposed to fight other diseases.

None of this long-range thinking makes a lick of difference to the 187 Pakistani children—or the 10 Afghanis or six Nigerians—who forever lost the use of their legs this year. They are paralyzed, as they will be for life. For them, there is no offsetting wealth, no townhouse with an elevator, no path to global greatness. There is only the disease—a pain FDR recognized and fought to fix. In Pakistan, that same fight is being waged today.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME space

See the Stunning New Portrait of Mars from India’s MOM Spacecraft

Mars photographed by the ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft on Sept. 30, 2014.
Mars photographed by the ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft on Sept. 30, 2014. ISRO—AFP/Getty Images

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which began orbiting the Red Planet on Sept. 23, has already sent back a stunning new portrait of Mars. The image taken Sept. 28 shows the beginnings of a dust storm on the surface of the planet and was taken by the Mars Color Camera aboard the spacecraft. The Mars Orbiter will be collecting images and other data from the planet’s surface and atmosphere using five sensors, four of which have already been switched on.

This data will be shared with NASA, according to an agreement signed on Sept. 30 between the two agencies to collaborate on Mars exploration. NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft entered Mars’s orbit just two days ahead of MOM, and will be able to receive data from Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on the planet’s surface.

TIME animals

Study: Chimps Learn How to Use New Tools From Other Chimps

ICOAST-ANIMAL-ZOO
A chimpanzee holds a lettuce at the zoo in Abidjan on June 12, 2014. Sia Kambou—AFP/Getty Images

This means chimps have a prerequisite for human culture

A new study from PLOS Biology found that chimpanzees can learn group-specific behavioral traits from each other, widely considered a prerequisite for human-style culture. The results suggest the foundations of human culture can be traced back to our common ancestry with apes.

Researchers in Uganda noticed that a few chimps in a group started using new kinds of sponges to drink water. Usually, chimps use clumps of leaves to extract the water, but the team observed one chimp using moss instead. Once the other chimps saw him using moss, seven other chimps made and used moss sponges over a six-day period. There was also another variation on the leaf-sponge (re-using an old leaf sponge) that also spread through the group.

“Basically, if you saw it done, you learned how to do it, and if you didn’t you didn’t,” lead researcher Dr. Catherine Hobaiter told the BBC. “It was just this wonderfully clear example of social learning that no one had [witnessed] in the wild before.”

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