Field of Science

2012 Nobel Prizes

Predicting the Nobel Prizes gets easier every year ((I said predicting, not getting your predictions right) since there’s very little you can add in the previous year’s list, although there are a few changes; the Plucky Palladists can now happily be struck off the list. As before, I am dividing categories into ‘easy’, and ‘difficult’ and assigning pros and cons to every prediction. This is a revised and updated version of my list from last year. Paul has already kicked off the predictions.

The easy ones are those regarding discoveries whose importance is (now) ‘obvious’; these discoveries inevitably make it to lists everywhere each year and the palladists clearly fell into this category. The difficult predictions would either be discoveries which have been predicted by few others or ones that that 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.

When predicting the Nobel prize it’s also prudent to be cognizant of discoveries whose recognition makes you go “Of course! That’s obvious”. Prizes for the charge-coupled device (CCD) (2009) integrated chip (2000) and in-vitro fertilization (2010) fall into this category.

Anyway, here's the N-list for chemistry:

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 Richard 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.

Lithium-ion batteries (Moderately easy): Used in almost every kind of consumer electronics, lithium-ion batteries are also touted as the best battery alternative to fossil fuels. A great account is provided in Seth Fletcher’s “Bottled Lightning”. From what I have read in that book and other sources, John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino seem to be the top candidates, although others have also made important contributions and it may be hard to divide up the credit.

Computational chemistry and biochemistry (Difficult):

Pros: Computational chemistry as a field has not been recognized since 1998 so the time seems due. One obvious candidate would be Martin Karplus. Another would be Norman Allinger, the pioneer of molecular mechanics.

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 Allinger but perhaps also 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. It even spawned a cool game. But the field is probably too new for a prize and would have to be further validated; at some point I do see a prize for biomolecular simulation.

Chemical genetics (Easy)
Another favorite for years, with Stuart Schreiber and Peter Schultz being touted as leading candidates.Pros: The general field has had a significant impact on basic and applied scienceCons: This again would be more of a lifetime achievement award which is rare. Plus, there are several individuals in recent years (Cravatt, Bertozzi, Shokat) 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 at least some people unhappy. Also, a prize for chemical biology might be yet another one whose time has just passed).

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.

NMR (Difficult): It’s been a while since Kurt Wuthrich won the prize for NMR. But it’s been even longer since a prize was awarded for methodological developments in the field (Richard Ernst). I don’t know enough about the field to know who the top contenders would be, but Ad Bax and Alexander Pines seem to have really made pioneering contributions. Pines especially helped launch the field of solid-state NMR which as a field certainly seems to deserve a Nobel at some point.

Among other fields, 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). One promising candidate is Krzysztof Matyjaszewski whose work in ATRP has had a pronounced impact on the way polymers are made; this would neatly fit into the Nobel Prize’s requirement for work that is both fundamental and has “benefited humanity”.


Nuclear receptors (Easy)
Pros: The importance of these proteins is unquestioned. I worked a little on NRs during my postdoc and remember being awed by the sheer diversity and ubiquity of these molecules in mediating key physiological functions. In addition they are already robust drug targets, with drugs like tamoxifen that hit the estrogen receptor making hundreds of millions of dollars. Most predictors seem to converge on the names of Chambon, Jensen and Evans and this prediction is definitely at the top of my list.

Chaperones: (Easy)

Arthur Horwich and Franz-Ulrich Hartl just won this year’s Lasker Award for their discovery of chaperones. Their names have been high on the list for some time now.
Pros: Clearly important. Chaperones are not only important for studying protein folding on a basic level but in the last few years the malfunctioning of chaperones such as heat-shock proteins has been shown to be very relevant to diseases like cancer.

Cons: Too early? Probably not.

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 since statins have become the best-selling drugs in history. 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. Precedents like Alexander Fleming (antibiotics), James Black (beta blockers, antiulcer drugs) and Gertrude Elion (immunosuppresants, anticancer agents) exist but are far and few in between. On the other hand this fact might make a prize for drug discovery overdue.

Drug delivery (Difficult): A lot of people are pointing to Robert Langer for his undoubtedly prolific and key contributions to drug delivery. The field as a whole has not been recognized yet so the time may be ripe; from my own understanding of his contributions, Langer seems to me more of an all-rounder, although it may not be too late to single out some of his earlier discoveries, such as the first demonstration of the delivery of high molecular weight polymer drugs.

Cancer genetics (Easy): Clearly a very important and cutting-edge field. We still don’t know how much of an impact genomic approaches will ultimately have on cancer therapy since the paradigm is clearly evolving, but any history of the field will have to include Robert Weinberg and Bert Vogelstein. Vogelstein discovered p53, the “guardian of the genome” while Weinberg discovered the first oncogenes. In addition both men have also been prominent influences on the field as a whole. Given both the pure and applied importance of their work, their discoveries should fit the Nobel committee’s preferences like a glove.

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.

DNA fingerprinting (Easy):
Now this seems to me to be very much a field from the “obvious” category. 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 (and exonerating wrongly convicted ones; for instance check out this great article by Carmen Drahl in C&EN)- 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. And while we are on DNA, I think it’s also worth throwing in Marvin Caruthers whose technique for DNA synthesis really transformed the field. In fact it would be nice to award a dual kind of prize for DNA- for both synthesis and diagnosis.

Cons: Picking three might be tricky.

Stem Cells (Easy)

This seems to be yet another favorite. McCulloch and Till are often listed. Unfortunately McCullough died earlier this year so it would be a little unfair to award just Till. However such a thing is not unprecedented. For example, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman shared the 2002 Economics Nobel Prize with Vernon L. Smith. Left out was his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky who had died in the 90s; it’s pretty much regarded as a given that Tversky would have shared the prize had he been alive.

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.

Membrane vesicle trafficking (Easy)

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.

GPCR structures (Difficult)

When the latest GPCR structure (the first one of a GPCR bound to a G protein) came out I remember remarking that Kobilka, Stevens and Palczewski are probably up for a Nobel Prize sometime. In the last two years I have become convinced that they deserve it. Palczewski solved the first structure of rhodopsin and Stevens and Kobilka have been churning out structure after important structure over the last decade, including the first structure of an active receptor along with several medicinally important ones including the dopamine D3 and CXCR4 receptors. Kobilka topped it off early this year with another tour-de-force, the structure of the beta adrenergic receptor bound to its G-protein. The implications of these structures are far-reaching but the results are already being used by both pure and applied scientists to better understand GPCR function and design GPCR-targeting drugs.

Pros: GPCR’s are clearly important for basic and applied science, especially drug discovery where 30% of drugs already target these proteins.

Cons: Perhaps too early.


I think it’s high time Anton Zeilinger, John Clauser and Alain Aspect got it for bringing the unbelievably weird phenomenon of quantum entanglement to the masses. Zeilinger’s book “Dance of the Photons” presents an informative and revealing account of this work

I have also always wondered whether non-linear dynamics and chaos deserves a prize. The proliferation and importance of the field certainly seems to warrant one; the problem is that there are way too many deserving recipients (and Mandelbrot is dead). Among the pioneers, Feigenbaum, May and Yorke come to mind easily.


  1. i think you meant 1998 for computational. Pople and Khon got theirs in 1998

  2. "Precedents like Alexander Fleming (antibiotics), James Black (beta blockers, antiulcer drugs) and Gertrude Elion (immunosuppresants, anticancer agents) exist but are far and few in between."

    Don't forget George Hitchings (also '88) and Daniel Bovet (1957)

  3. Single molecule spectroscopy- Some of the superresolution microscopy methods (FPALM, PALM and STORM), which by the way still of questionable value in life science research, are based on this method and but I do not understand what is the real contribution of single molecule spectroscopy per se to life science.

    Chemical genetics- It is supposed to help us understand the functions of genes using small molecules. We still need to use knockout and conditional knockout mice to solve this problem. The catch is there is no such small molecule which is specific for a particular protein. Chemical genetics is kind of similar to RNA interference (RNAi). I do not think there is any significant contribution of RNAi either to understanding of gene functions or therapeutics and they were awarded the prize much earlier than scientists who invented knockout mice.

    Drug delivery- You see a lot of targeted and non targeted drug delivery vehicles papers published. Where is the beef? Do we have any vehicles which can deliver protein therapeutics and larger molecules reliably to brain?


  4. Both Kobilka and Stevens have held lectures at Stockholm university in the last few months, which of course means nothing in it self, I am just saying.

  5. Would love to see real chemistry winning: for example Phil Power (UC Davis) for triple bonds between heavy main group elements, maybe shared with Bob West (Wisconsin) for overcoming the double bond rule. Rather unlikely though.

  6. Sadly, I think the heyday of nonlinear dynamics is past - and unlikely to gain a Nobel. Though if it happens, I'd love to see an experimentalist make that cut, maybe Harry Swinney?

  7. druker, sawyers, lydon for imatinib

  8. Just can't get why lithium-ion research is ranked middle-easy. Haven't seen any car on a lithium battery yet.

  9. Well, we got Kobilka right.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS