Field of Science

2013 Nobel Prizes

It's almost time for the 2013 Nobel Prizes, which means it's also time for playing that little game which we in the chemosphere have been playing for a while. As a prize predictor my record hasn't been execrable; in the last few years I did get most of the prizewinners for the ribosome, palladium-catalyzed chemistry, GFP and GPCRs right. Out of these the ones that really count are the ribosome and GPCRs, since I actually predicted the winners during the year in which they won.

As I mentioned in last year's list, predictions for the prize get somewhat easier every year when all you have to do is to keep old predictions and get rid of recent hits. Having perpetual favorites definitely makes the job easier. What does change is the probability of prediction based on last year's prizes. So without further ado, here is a modified and updated list from last year with a modified set of probabilities.

Let's start by noting that since last year's prize was awarded to biochemists, it makes it less likely that the same field will be recognized this year. Excluding biochemistry, the fields that top my list for this year are instrumental techniques and energy. Physical chemistry has also not won since Gerhard Ertl received the prize for surface chemistry. NMR and single-molecule spectroscopy both seem to me to be fields whose time is due. As for energy, I don't see anyone in solar or wind who has made enough headway to warrant a prize. However the inventors of lithium ion batteries definitely seem to deserve one.

As usual the predictions are classified as "easy" or "difficult" depending on their likelihood of winning. Note also that Nobel Prizes have traditionally been handed out to specific discoveries rather than for lifetime achievements, although the latter have not been entirely missing from the list.

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. - See more at:
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.

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.

While we are on the topic of instrumental techniques, it's also worthwhile to mull over some methods that have become household words in both academia and industry. These methods may not be as earth-shattering as NMR but these days they are certainly as commonplace as NMR. What about surface plasmon resonance which is routinely used to measure binding of all kinds of molecules to each other? Wikipedia tells me that "The first SPR immunoassay was proposed in 1983 by Liedberg, Nylander, and Lundström, then of the Linköping Institute of Technology (Sweden)", so I don't know if these gentlemen should be up for the prize (the three form a neat, Nobel-approved trio). FRET also comes to mind. Then there's cryoelectron microscopy which while tantalizing is almost certainly too nascent a field to be recognized.

Moving on to energy, there's one development that undoubtedly tugs at my heartstrings:

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.

And two other fields, at least one of which has been a favorite for a while:

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.

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.

If they really do decide to give out another award for biochemistry, there are some well-recognized candidates. Many of these are also shoe-ins for the medicine prize.

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 and Evans this prediction and NRs are definitely at the top of my list.

Chaperones: (Easy): Arthur Horwich and Franz-Ulrich Hartl just won last 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 and traps abound, but any history of the field will have to include Robert Weinberg and Bert Vogelstein. Vogelstein discovered the importance of 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. As a con, the field is very vast and divvying up credit could be tricky. 

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 and one that's long overdue. 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. 

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, just like a prize for the Pill.

Speaking of the pill, Carl Djerassi's 90th birthday was celebrated this year at the ACS National Meeting in Indianapolis. For the past thirty odd years Djerassi has been focused not on science but on poetry and writing. Personally I think that recognizing him with the prize would still be a nice thing - after all, the social impact of the easily equals that of other prizewinning discoveries like IVF - but the late receipt of the prize combined with the death of many important associates would make it all a bit strange.

What about the physics prize?

As interesting as the chemistry prize is going to be, its significance and excitement might pale to a whimpering whisper in comparison to the physics Nobel Prize, the awarding of which might create a controversy the likes of which have not been seen since Miley Cyrus took to the stage with a novel dance form.

The problem is simple. Everybody agrees that the discovery of the Higgs boson deserves a Nobel Prize. But almost every history of the Higgs credits at least six and possibly seven people with laying out the ideas that predicted the finding. Again, nobody denies that Peter Higgs deserves the prize, but after that it's anybody's guess. And the six people often cited are just the theoreticians; including the experimenters at CERN adds another well-deserved layer of complexity to giving out the prize.

If we are really looking for least-of-all-evil type scenarios then perhaps they can award the prize to Higgs and collectively to the CERN team. That way fewer feathers may be ruffled (or at least all feathers would be equally ruffled) and the prize would also have been squarely divided among the lead theoretician and the experimenters. We will see. This year's Nobel Prize for Physics may put some of the great Greek dramas to shame.

Update: As David Pendlebury from Thomson Reuters correctly pointed out to me, Vogelstein did not discover p53 but was the first to point out its connection to cancer as a common denominator. Also, Elwood Jensen passed away last year.

Update: Other predictions - Pipeline, Chembark, Chemistry World.
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. - See more at:


  1. I think I've pretty much said all I've wanted to say about magnetic resonance and molecular dynamics in earlier posts on my blog [1; 2, ]. I think if you were to pin down a Chemistry prize slate for solids NMR, Waugh and Pines are fairly safe choices. Waugh really set the stage for chemical applications of solids NMR in the 1960s and - in addition to the cross polarization work with Pines - introduced the separated local field experiment in the 1970s, which has seen great use in solids NMR of oriented samples.* I seem to recall having mentioned my thoughts about a good number of these on here in the past, and that hasn't really changed. Moerner & Orrit's original papers on single molecule spectroscopy in the condensed phase are coming up on their 25 year anniversaries, come to think of it. I'd say it's in a pretty reasonable timeframe for recognition.

    *: In relation to an earlier post on here - MIT has usually had a pretty solid NMR/magnetic resonance presence historically, which is Pines' alma mater and Waugh's affiliation for much of his career, and still has Bob Griffin (a former Waugh postdoc) & his group doing all kinds of crazy and awesome things, including dynamic nuclear polarization methods development. Some of this is probably related to the fact that there was the Bitter Lab and the RLE at MIT, which probably helped out quite a bit.

    1. Thanks for the note, I was not aware of Waugh's contributions.

  2. It's probably too soon, but Deisseroth and Boyden should win eventually for channelrhodopsin and optogenetics.

    1. Deisseroth certainly came to my mind, but as you mentioned he will probably have to wait for a few years for others to validate his technique.

  3. For a trio, I'd think Sunney Chan next to Gray & Bard

  4. If it comes to Computational Chemistry, one could probably imagine (besides Karplus) Carr and Parrinello. The CPMD technique has really revolutionized computational studies from biomolecules to catalysis. Any thoughts on this?

    1. I think that would be a good combination. CPMD is a narrow technical tool with widespread applications, so it fits into a certain category of Nobel Prize which may or may not be given out this year.

  5. As a researcher in the field of gene expression, the discovery by David Allis' lab of a histone acetylase as a coactivator of transcription and the subsequent studies by his lab of elucidating how histone modifications affect transcription had a greater impact to me more than the discovery of nuclear receptors. The crucial discovery came in 1996, the same year Stuart Schreiber's lab discovered a histone deacetylase. Of course, Schreiber's lab has made discoveries in many other fields, but Allis' work has depth at least in this field. I wonder if he has a chance. Thomson Reuters picked him in 2012.

  6. Computational modeling of macromolecules it is! Levitt and Warshel alongside Martin Karplus. A surprising, but good choice, IMHO.


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