Field of Science

That time of the year

So it seems the Nobel speculations have started again. I have been doing them for some years now and this year at a meeting in Lindau in Germany I saw 23 Nobel Prize winners in chemistry up close, none of whom I predicted would win the prize (except the discoverers of GFP, but that was a softball prediction).

As I mentioned in one of my posts from Lindau, predicting the prize for chemistry has always been tricky because the discipline spans the breadth of the spectrum of science, from physics to biology. The chemistry prize always leaves a select group of people upset; the materials scientists will crib about biochemists getting it, the biochemists will crib about chemical physicists getting it. However, as I mentioned in the Lindau post about Roger Kornberg, to me this selective frustration indicates the remarkable purview of chemistry. With this in mind, here goes another short round of wild speculation. It would of course again be most interesting if someone who was not on anybody's list gets the prize; there is no better indication of the diversity of chemistry than a failure to predict the winner.

1. Structural biology: Not many seem to have mentioned this. Ada Yonath (Weizmann Institute) and Venki Ramakrishnan (MRC) should definitely get it for their resolution of the structure of the ribosome. Cracking an important biological structure has always been the single best bet for winning the Nobel (the tradeoff being that you can spend your life doing it and not succeed, or worse, get scooped), and Yonath and Ramakrishnan would deserve it as much as say Roderick McKinnon (potassium channel) or Hartmut Michel (light harvesting center)

2. Single-molecule spectroscopy: The technique has now come of age and fascinating studies of biomolecules have been done with it. W. E. Moerner and Richard Zare (Stanford) seem to be in line for it.

3. Palladium: This is a perpetual favorite of organic chemists. Every week I get emails announcing the latest literature selections for that week's organic journal club in our department. One or two of the papers without exception feature some palladium catalyzed reaction. Palladium is to organic chemists what gold was to the Incas. Heck, Suzuki and perhaps Buchwald should get it.

4. Computational modeling of biomolecules; Very few computational chemists get Nobel Prizes, but if anyone should get it it's Martin Karplus (Harvard). More than anyone else he pioneered the use of theoretical and computational techniques for studying biomolecules. I would also think of Norman Allinger (UGA) who pioneered force fields and molecular mechanics. But I don't think the Nobel committee considers that work fundamental enough, although it is now a cornerstone of computational modeling. Another candidate is Ken Houk (UCLA) who more than anyone else pioneered the application of computational techniques to the study of organic reactions. As my past advisor who once introduced him in a seminar quipped, "If there's a bond that is broken in organic chemistry, Ken has broken it on his computers".

Among other speculations include work on electron transfer in DNA especially pioneered by Jacqueline Barton (Caltech). However I remember more than one respectable scientist saying that this work is controversial. On a related topic though, there is one field which has not been honored:

5. Bioinorganic chemistry: The names of Stephen Lippard (MIT) and Harry Gray (Caltech) come to mind. Lippard has cracked many important problems in metalloenzyme chemistry, Gray has done some well-established and highly significant work on electron transfer in proteins.

So those are the names. Some people are mentioning Michael Gr├Ątzel for his work on solar cells, although I personally don't think the time is ripe for recognizing solar energy. Hopefully the time will come soon. It also seems that Stuart Schreiber is no longer on many of the lists. I think he still deserves a prize for really being the pioneer in investigating the interaction of small organic and large biological molecules.

As for the Medicine Nobel, from a drug discovery point of view I really think that Akiro Endo of Japan who discovered statins should get it. Although the important commercial statins were discovered by major pharmaceutical companies, Endo not only painstakingly isolated and tested the first statin but also was among the first to propound the importance of inhibiting HMG-CoA reductase as the key enzyme in cholesterol metabolism. He seems to deserve a prize just like Alexander Fleming did, and just like penicillin, statins have literally saved millions of lives.

Another popular candidate for the medicine Nobel is Robert Langer of MIT, whose drug delivery methods have been very important in the widespread application of the controlled delivery of drugs. A third good bet for the medicine prize is Elizabeth Blackburn who did very important work in the discovery of telomeres and telomerases. Blackburn is also a warm and highly ethical woman who was bumped off Bush's bioethics committee for her opposition to the ban on stem cell research. Blackburn proudly wears this label, and you can read this and other interesting aspects of her life in her biography.

And finally of course, as for the physics prize, give it to Stephen Hawking. Just give it to him. And perhaps to Roger Penrose. Just do it!!

Update: Ernest McCullough and James Till also seem to be strong candidates for the Medicine prize for their discovery of stem cells. They also won the Lasker Award in 2005, which has often been a stepping stone on the path to the Nobel. McCullough seems to be 83, so now might be a good time to award him the prize.

For chemistry, Benjamin List also seems to be on many lists for his work in organocatalysis, but I personally think the field may be too young go be recognized.

Another interesting category in the physics prize seems to be quantum entanglement. Alain Aspect who performed the crucial experimental validations of Bell's Theorem definitely comes to mind. Bell himself almost certainly would have received the prize had he not died very untimely of a stroke.

Previous predictions: 2008, 2007, 2006

Other blogs: The Chem Blog, In The Pipeline


  1. Interesting list. It has been over a decade since a computational chemist was awarded a Nobel prize. Perhaps the time is right.

  2. Dear Wavefunction,

    May you evolve well.

    I accidentally came across your blog and read about your prediciton that Venky and Ada should get the Nobel. Wonderful.

    It was in 2002, I heard Venky talk about his ribosome structure work at the Biophysics Dept, Univ Madras. I am a theoretical physicist and had gone to the talk because of my long fascination for biology. At the end of Venky's talk I told my colleagues that the work is of Nobel quality and compared it with Roderick McKinnon (potassium channel)work.

    I thought I will share with you my old thoughts.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. May you evolve well too!


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