Field of Science

But Bohr never said anything about Nobel Prizes

Niels Bohr famously said that “prediction is futile...especially about the future”. But that’s assuming that the prediction is truly novel. That’s not really the case with the Nobel Prizes. One can keep on trotting out the same names for twenty years and if one or more of them stick in a particular year, that’s not exactly a novel prediction. Nor is it one when you just keep on re-iterating names others have proposed. Predicting a Nobel Prize either of these ways is like “predicting” that some winter in the next fifty years will be particularly cold or that some hurricane season will be particularly violent.

What would be a really commendable and difficult prediction? Well, predicting the winner of the 2006 Prize would have been a home run. Nobody that I knew suggested Roger Kornberg’s name. So no use patting myself on the back for predicting four correct names for last year’s prizes- Ada Yonath, Venki Ramakrishnan, Jack Szostak and Elizabeth Blackburn. In the former case, I remember predicting a prize for the ribosome at least since 2002. The latter prediction was one made by dozens of others, again for several years.

In light of the above rather obvious observations, there’s no glory in trotting out Nobel predictions if there’s no novelty in them. Others have done it better. So instead of reiterating the twenty names that I have thrown out every year, it would be much more worthwhile sticking with only four or five and taking my chances.

So here goes. I am dividing the categories into ‘easy’ and ‘difficult’ predictions. The easy ones are those made by dozens of others for years regarding discoveries whose importance is ‘obvious’. The difficult predictions would be ones which few others seem to make or ones which are ‘non-obvious’. But what exactly is a discovery of ‘non-obvious’ importance? Well, one of the criteria in my mind for a ‘non-obvious’ Nobel Prize is one that is awarded to an individual for general achievements in a field rather than for specific discoveries, much like the lifetime achievement Academy Awards given out to men and women with canes. Such predictions are somewhat harder to make simply because fields are honored by prizes much less frequently than specific discoveries. But interestingly, in retrospect the field-based awards seem more than obviously warranted; one of the best examples is Woodward, who was clearly honored for his overall accomplishments in organic synthesis. Pauling’s Nobel would be another example.

Anyway, here’s the line-up that includes prizes for all three science disciplines plus a random peace prize. To make it more interesting I am also listing what I feel are the pros and cons for that particular field or discovery. Note also that there can always be an overlap between the chemistry and medicine prizes as has often been in the past. It's just that, considering that last year's chemistry prize went to biochemists, a biology prize this year seems unlikely.


1. Palladium-catalyzed reactions (Bleedingly Easy): A perpetual favorite of organikers. However, this bleedingly easy discovery has nevertheless eluded the prize for years.
Pros: The applications in organic synthesis are tremendous and all-pervading, so much so that newer generations may forget that someone had to actually discover this stuff
Cons: The last Nobel for organic methodology was awarded in 2005, pretty recently. Plus, who to award? Heck, Suzuki and Sonogashira are the more obvious candidates, but Hartwig and Buchwald are also major players. Also, not awarding the prize to a discovery for a long time can always mean that it’s too late.

2. Computational chemistry and biochemistry (Difficult):
Pros: Computational chemistry as a field has not been recognized since 1999 so the time seems due. One obvious candidate would be Martin Karplus.
Cons: This would definitely be a lifetime achievement award. Karplus did do the first MD simulation of a protein ever but that by itself wouldn’t command a Nobel Prize. The other question is regarding what field exactly the prize would honor. If it’s specifically applications to biochemistry, then Karplus alone would probably suffice. But if the prize is for computational methods and applications in general, then others would also have to be considered, most notably Ken Houk who has been foremost in applying such methods to organic chemistry. Another interesting candidate is David Baker whose program Rosetta has really produced some fantastic results in predicting protein structure and folding. But this field is probably too new for a prize.

3. Chemical biology and chemical genetics (Easy)
Another favorite for years, with Schreiber and Schultz being touted as leading candidates.
Pros: The general field has had a significant impact on basic and applied science
Cons: This again would be more of a lifetime achievement award which is rare. Plus, there are several individuals in recent years (Cravatt, Bertozzi) who have contributed to the field. It may make some sense to award Schreiber a ‘pioneer’ award for raising ‘awareness’ but that’s sure going to make a lot of people unhappy. Also, a prize for chemical biology might be yet another one whose time has just passed.

4. Single-molecule spectroscopy (Easy)
Pros: The field has obviously matured and is now a powerful tool for exploring everything from nanoparticles to DNA. It’s been touted as a candidate for years. The frontrunners seem to be W E Moerner and M Orrit, although R Zare has also been floated often.
Cons: The only con I can think of is that the field might yet be too new for a prize

5. Electron transfer in biological systems (Easy)
Pros: Another field which has matured and has been well-validated. Gray and Bard seem to be leading candidates.

Many other discoveries have been listed, most notably by Paul@Chembark. I don’t really see a prize for the long lionized birth pill and Carl Djerassi; although we might yet be surprised, the time just seems to have passed. Then there are fields which seem too immature for the prize; among these are molecular machines (Stoddart et al.) and solar cells (Gratzel).


1. Nuclear receptors (Easy)
Pros: The importance of these proteins is unquestioned. Most predictors seem to converge on the names of Chambon/Jensen/Evans
Cons: A prize for biology was given out last year to chemists and biologists

2. Statins (Difficult)
Akira Endo’s name does not seem to have been discussed much. Endo discovered the first statin. Although this particular compound was not a blockbuster drug, since then statins have revolutionized the treatment of heart disease.
Pros: The “importance” as described in Nobel’s will is obvious. It also might be a nice statement to award the prize to the discovery of a drug for a change. Who knows, it might even boost the image of a much maligned pharmaceutical industry.
Cons: The committee is not really known for awarding actual drug discovery. Sure, there are precedents like Fleming, Black and Elion, but these are far and few in between. On the other hand this fact might make a prize for drug discovery overdue.

2. Genomics (Difficult)
A lot of people say that Venter should get the prize, but it’s not clear exactly for what. Not for the human genome, which others would deserve too. If a prize was to be given out for synthetic biology, it’s almost certainly premature. Venter’s synthetic organisms from last year may rule the world, but for now we humans still prevail. On the other hand, a possible prize for genomics may rope in people like Carruthers and Hood who pioneered methods for DNA synthesis.

3. DNA diagnostics (Difficult)
Now this seems to me to be a field whose time is very much due. The impact of DNA fingerprinting and Western and Southern Blots on pure and applied science, everything from discovering new drugs to hunting down serial killers, is at least as big as the prizeworthy PCR. I think the committee would be doing itself a favor by honoring Jeffreys, Stark, Burnette and Southern.

4. Stem Cells (Easy)
This seems to be yet another favorite. McCulloch and Till are often listed.
Pros: Surely one of the most important biological discoveries of the last 50 years, promising fascinating advances in human health and disease.
Cons: Politically controversial (although we hope the committee can rise above this). Plus, a 2007 Nobel was awarded for work on embryonic stem cells using gene targeting strategies so there’s a recent precedent.

4. Membrane vesicle trafficking (Easy)
Rothman and Schekman
Pros: Clearly important. The last trafficking/transport prize was given out in 1999 (Blobel) so another one is due and Rothman and Schekman seem to be the most likely canidates. Plus, they have already won the Lasker Award which in the past has been a good indicator of the Nobel.


I am not a physicist
But if I were
I would dare
To shout from my lair
“Give Hawking and Penrose the Prize!”
For being rock stars of humungous size

Also, Zeilinger, Clauser and Aspect probably deserve it for bringing the unbelievably weird phenomenon of quantum entanglement to the masses.


Two names consistently come to my mind- Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. The world owes more than it can imagine to these two gentlemen for securing loose nuclear material and weapons from the Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Given the threat of nuclear terrorism, their efforts will go very far indeed. Plus in these troubled political times, they showcase a rare example of bipartisan cooperation.

The two Bills- Clinton and Gates- will probably also get the prize, but maybe not this year.

In any case,

So much in human affairs
Is open to fate and chance
Thanks, but I will stick to science
And watch the molecules dance...

Previous predictions: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006


  1. Did you mean "Cravatt"?

    Also, what about applied Nobels, like advances in polymer science or nanoparticles?


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