Field of Science

2007 Nobel Prizes

A couple of nights ago, I had a curious dream. I dreamt that Stuart Schreiber has won the Nobel Prize for this year, and I remembered that exactly one year ago, I wrote a post about predictions for the Prize. None of the ones I thought about got it of course, and in the end, someone who nobody thought of- Roger Kornberg- got it. In retrospect, it is not too surprising. At the time as many bloggers would remember, much noise was made by people including myself that a "non-chemist" has won the chemistry prize. In retrospect however, the prize seems quite deserving. Kornberg always made it clear in interviews that he always thought of himself as a chemist, and his tremendous achievement was to reduce a dazzlingly complex and extremely important biological problem to a chemical one which he then meticulously solved. All kudos well-deserved.

This year, I don't have much to add to my last list. Interestingly, there are a few who I could think of possibly taking off the list. David Baker for example whose work may not only be premature, but is thought by some to be less impressive than what it is. I personally am not so sure about George Whitesides either; not that he has not done spectacular work, but he seems to be deserving more of a lifetime achievement award for many varied contributions, something that the Nobel has been relatively rarely awarded for. That's why I am not sure about Martin Karplus too. Ditto for Stephen Lippard, Harry Gray and the bioinorganic chemistry cabal.

Then there are others who in my eyes now seem to be deserving the prize even more. Stuart Schreiber should really get it in my opinion. J. Fraser Stoddart, Roger Tsien, and people from the single-molecule spectroscopy field also are top of my list this year. As it was last year, Roger Tsien would surely be a perpetual favourite in light of the sheer number of applications his discovery has found.

It would be perfectly plausible for x-ray crystallographers to get it for structures of say the ribosome. Bacterial rhodopsin also may deserve it. But it's unlikely only because a similar one was given out last year. As for pure organic chemistry related stuff, the palladium reaction guys still seem to have a chance, except for the fact that a methodology prize was given out two years ago. An organic related prize should be awarded to organic-chemists-turned-chemical biologists like Schreiber and Schultz.

Folks from the materials science legions are also increasingly deserving, and just like last year, I feel almost sure that the prize would be an interdisciplinary one awarded to either nanotech/materials or chemical biology. I already mentioned Stoddart. Robert Langer from MIT also seems to be in line, perhaps for medicine. I am not really aware of people in the organic electronics area who could also get it. That could be premature, but Jan Schon definitely won't be up for it.

Another class of people which comes to my mind for the Medicine prize is that of researchers involved in discovering key signal-transduction molecules. Maybe Nf-kB, maybe TNF, maybe some other universal regulating or transcription factor. Others also seem to be likely candidates for the Medicine prize. What about Judah Folkman who proposed angiogenesis as an organizing principle in tumorigenesis? Or perhaps the guys who advanced the amyloid hypothesis?

"Techniques" prizes also seem likely as usual. RNAi already got it. So have MRI and applications of NMR and Mass Spec. It's hard to think of any other prominent recent technique but I may be missing something key in analytical chemistry/molecular biology.

Could we conjecture that some old guy/woman would get it? If we look at the age statistics of Nobelists, it's quite clear that the age of young Turks getting the prize seems to have been declining. Maybe it reflects on the considerable education and groundwork that a researcher has to get rooted in before he can make significant contributions. The average age at which a new researcher gets his first big grants also has gone up. On the other hand, one can be grateful that applied fields like medicine are, unlike pure mathematics, not a young person's game.

In any case, this is always an interesting time of the year, and it's always a really nice feeling to see someone whose work you are familiar with and praise, peering at you from the website and lending his views to a telephone conversation. And it is always fun prognosticating, just like a small kid ranking his GI Joes using different criteria. And just like GI Joes, in the end, it is best to walk away and not make a big deal about it.

Paul and Derek also have lists from last year and this year.


  1. Is there a list of health condition of these guys? Nobel Prize is only for living people, so to avoid regretfulness they should award the one with worst health condition first.

  2. Heh, good idea!...they should probably have one. Frank Westheimer may have gotten it then.

  3. Thank you for your comment on my blog Off The Road. I have stopped posting there, however. Now I'm holding a blog in Nature Network:

    I have subscribed the RSS feed of this blog for long and I read every post but seldom leave comment because I'm not familiar with drug design/organic synthesis. I mean keep writing, please.

  4. NF-kB was discovered in the lab of David Baltimore, who has already won a Nobel prize for his discovery of reverse transcriptase. So, there won't be a Nobel prize for that. Some key signaling molecules are always possibilities. For example, nuclear receptors and cytokines. I think it is a little unfair, however, if someone wins a prize for some specific transcription factor(s) when Bob Roeder couldn't win for making many key discoveries in eukaryotic transcription in general.

    As for techniques (in molecular biology), Southern blot and, more recently, DNA microarrays have changed the way things are studied. Also, fluorescence-activated cell sorter has been enormously useful. (BTW I don't see RNAi as merely a technique. It is more than that.)

  5. DNA microarrays is a good candidate. Southern Blots (and Western blots?) are also good choices. As you indicated, giving a prize for factors may miss a lot of other people. Thanks for noting.


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