Field of Science

Medals and Champagne Fizz

It's that time of the year again, when the champagne floods the otherwise noxious chemical shelves in the stockroom. Yes, the Nobel prize in chemistry will be announced on October 4, and many hopefuls will be dreaming about it, although it probably would go to someone who is not. Harvard usually stocks champagne in the stockroom, "just in case" and not without realistic expectations this year, since three of their faculty have been slotted to win the prize for some time now.

So what do I predict about the whole chemistry prize festivities and deliberations? Here are my bets, placed while my computer calculation drones on, although I am not as sanguine about them as one may expect, because I don't win any prizes for predicting prizes.

1. Nanotechnology: George Whitesides, Harvard. Pioneer in everything nano, from enzymes to surface lithography, you name it. More than a thousand publications. Started out as a 'pure' chemist doing NMR spectroscopy at Caltech.

Also, J. Fraser Stoddart of UCLA, for his remarkable and dogged pursuit of nanomachines, including nanomotors and nanopropellors. Many then jumped on this bandwagon, but no one has been as prolific as Stoddart. And it's not just about making fancy toys, but about generating prototypes for some very novel chemistry using them. In the process, Stoddart has created a 'new' type of bond, the 'mechanical bond'.

2. Chemical Biology/ Bioorganic/Bioinorganic chemistry: Stuart Schreiber, Harvard. Pioneered the field of 'chemical genetics'- controlling the workings of genes and protein at a fundamental level in the body, using ‘small’ organic molecules. Schreiber metamorphosed from a purely synthetic organic chemist to a force to reckon with in chemical biology. Racy description of him in The Billion Dollar Molecule. Another one of my favourites has been Ronald Breslow at Columbia, who should get it for pioneering biomimetic chemistry, and especially the study of artificial enzymes.

Some other contenders: Peter Dervan of Caltech- did magic with DNA as a chemical. Harry Gray of the same institution- discovered untold riches in electron transfer in proteins. Stephen Lippard, MIT- did groundbreaking work in understanding metal mediated enzymatic reactions, especially the notorious methane monooxygenase, that converts methane to methanol. If we could do that on a large scale at room temperature, given the amount of methane around (the most abundant greenhouse gas), what more could humankind want? World Peace perhaps.

3. Organic Synthesis: If there’s one metal that has had singular success in aiding the synthesis of complex molecules, it’s palladium, for all its toxicity in everyday life. Three palladium catalysed reactions in organic chemistry; Heck, Suzuki, Sonogashira (there's another one, except that the discoverer, Stille, is no more) have become ubiquitous in the art and science of synthesis. If anybody should get a prize for metal mediated reactions, it should be these three. I wouldn’t be optimistic though, because it was just last year that a prize was given for a special kind of organic reaction mediated by ruthenium and tungsten catalysts.

4. X-ray crystallography/Biochemistry- One of the best ways to try to get a Nobel is to devote your life to solving the structure of some protein that is crucial to life; you may succeed or you may spend your entire life doing it and fail- this being the tradeoff. Many such Nobels have been awarded, including the latest in 2003 to Roderick McKinnon, who after painstaking work resolved the structure and action of the potassium channel, a protein that is one of the fundamental workhorses of all living organisms, involved in ion conduction in the nervous system as well as elsewhere. I always get a kick out of such discoveries, because unlike even other Nobel discoveries, these involve truly looking into the heart of nature, like W-C did with DNA. If you are talking about fundamental science that lifts the veil from nature’s face, this is as fundamental as you can get.

So my contenders for such work- 'Venki' Ramakrishnan The Indian and Ada Yonath, who cracked the structure of the Ribosome, a protein which is if anything, more fundamental than the potassium channel.

4. Computational organic chemistry- Of course my favourite because of my own disposition. Kendall Houk of UCLA, who more than anyone else in the last twenty years, has helped expand our knowledge of organic reactions and syntheses using computational insights.

5. Computer Simulation of Biomolecules- Again, a personal favourite and a big contender- Martin Karplus of Harvard, the last student of two times laureate Linus Pauling. The scope and depth of Karplus's computational work in chemistry, physics, and biology, are almost comparable to Pauling's, and his work in especially simulating proteins using computers has been pioneering in every sense. He has been a possibility for many years. I have written about his visit to Emory a few months ago here.

Another big fish from the same pond is David Baker from the University of Washington at Seattle, who has probably provided the first solution to one of the greatest unsolved problems in biology- the protein folding problem. I presented a paper by Baker last year, about a program called ROSETTA, which was used to predict the folding of a small protein from first principles, giving a result of extraordinary accuracy that agreed with experiment. This is the first time any one has ever done something like that, and the work represented a triumph for computational scientists. The way in which the complex interactions in protein folding were included by Baker in his programs was diabolically clever. It may be a little early for Baker to get felicited, though the earlier the BaTer of course (that was a bad one)

One thing I think I can say for certain; the prize will definitely be connected with either biology or materials science, the two most fertile scientific paradigms of the twenty-first century.

I believe that many of these scientists should get a Nobel prize at least sometime in their lifetime, an opinion that is reiterated by many in the scientific community. But that only shows how hung up we all are on the Nobel. Of course, everyone who gets the Nobel is brilliant. The real problem is that there are many fold that number of scientists who are of Nobel caliber, who never get it. In the scientific community, their names are as well recognized, but in the public eye, they somehow rank lower in the genius category. This is surely unfair, because a Nobel prize is after all a prize instituted by human beings, and reflects personal preferences and tastes. It can be given to only three people at a time, and in the end, the exclusion of the fourth person often is unfair. Many such cases abound, probably the best known case in public memory being that of Rosalind Franklin, although she unfortunately died before the Nobels were awarded. The bottom line is that prestigious as the Nobels are and exceptional as the laureates are, there are many more such fine researchers around who would never get it, yet are on par with their Nobel colleagues in intellect and achievement. All of us could do well to remember this. In the end, it is a truism that getting a Nobel is as much a matter of timing and luck as it is of innate factors. That should help for a realistic appraisal of its prestige.

On a personal note, as you progress in your own field and career, it is a pleasure to see how you graduate from not ever having heard the names of that year’s laureates, to having actually studied their research in classes and otherwise, to having perhaps actually used their research in your own work. If I had been twenty-five in 1998 (ceteris paribus), I would have been pleased that I am actually using some of the methods developed by computational chemists John Pople and Walter Kohn who received that year’s prize, and I did study the reaction for which chemists received the prize last year. That is a very satisfying feeling, the feeling that one aspiring artisan is using the tools of another accomplished one.

Update: Paul Bracher, after much thought, comes up with a comprehensive list. He reminds me of two whom I did not think about; Stanley Miller and Leslie Orgel, who worked on the origin of life. The problem is that the field in general is quite speculative, and the one contribution which did help a lot, catalytic RNA, has already been awarded a prize.


  1. J. Fraser Stoddart, really. Whenever I encounter papers from his group I tell myself this guy must be the laureate some year if not this year.

  2. Yes, he should get it sometime in his life hopefully!


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