Field of Science

It's the most wonderful time of the year...#2014Nobels


...and the carolers are already out. Thomson Reuters already have their 2014 Nobel Prize prediction list, and past tradition obliges me to respond. C&EN is also having a nice panel discussion on the prize at 3:30 PM EDT on September 30th, so if you want to contribute to the chest-thumping/eye-gouging polite discussion feel free to join.

I was of course quite tickled when my own field won the prize last year so I think it's safe to discount a theoretical or computational chemistry prize from being given out this year (I am thinking of you, David Baker; you'll just have to wait). Contrary to there being absolutely no evidence to support this, I continue to believe that the prize committee does try to preserve a modicum of diversity, so that they don't end up recognizing similar areas every year.

This year I will keep my list short. The past ten years have recognized theoretical/computational chemistry (1 out of 10), biochemistry/bioorganic chemistry (5 out of 10!), organic synthesis (2 out of 10), surface chemistry (1 out of 10) and quasicrystals (1 out of 10) so I am going to be partial to other fields this time. 

Top of my list is John Goodenough for being a co-developer of the lithium-ion battery. I have thought for a while now that this is a prize that has probably been neglected because it's too obvious (remember the prize for IVF?). But that's precisely what makes it so important; lithium-ion batteries are everywhere. Giving a prize for batteries will also be a recognition of the growing importance of energy, and especially non-fossil fuel based energy. Another way to recognize the importance of energy would be to award a prize to Michael Gr√§tzel for the dye-sensitized solar cell.

Speaking of electrochemistry, other often cited names are those of Allen Bard and Harry Gray who have devoted their careers to studying electron transfer, albeit in different kinds of systems (Gray mainly in proteins). The last electron transfer prize was given out to Rudolf Marcus in 1992 so its time may be due. Personally I think that the work that Bard and Gray have done is undoubtedly fascinating and important, but I am a little skeptical about whether its broadly applicable enough to get top billing from the Nobel committee.

Another favorite of mine for this year is Ching Tang of the University of Rochester who made key contributions to the organic light-emitting diode (LED). Like the lithium-ion battery the organic LED is also a mainstay of modern life so saluting its utility would be no surprise. There is also a chance that this contribution could be poached by the physicists. Thomson Reuters also has Tang on their list and he has received the 2011 Wolf Prize, which is almost as good as getting a Nobel.

Turning to what I think are less probable but still attractive choices, I think dendrimers (Frechet) and click chemistry (Sharpless) might stand a chance; the former more than the latter in terms of its longer life and more extensive validation in chemistry. Metal-organic frameworks (Yaghi and others) are also probably validated and used enough to be recognized. I don't really see a straight prize for organic synthesis or methodology, partly because two methodology prizes (palladium-catalyzed reactions and metathesis) have been awarded in the last decade. I would love to see a chemistry/medicine prize awarded to Carl Djerassi for his invention of the pill, but I increasingly get the feeling that that ship has sailed for good.

So that's my personal list for this year's chemistry prize - energy as a field is at the top, and LEDs, batteries and electron transfer are my favorite contenders.

Occasionally the prizes for chemistry and medicine overlap so it's worth speculating a bit on the medicine prize. In the "obvious" category are people like Alec Jeffreys (DNA fingerprinting), Leroy Hood and Craig Venter (the nuts and bolts of gene sequencing), Robert Langer (drug delivery) and a longstanding favorite of many people - nuclear receptors (Chambon and Evans; Elwood Jensen sadly passed away in 2012). Thomson Reuters is proposing David Julius who did important work on figuring out the receptors responsible for pain, and that seems like a good choice to me. More speculatively, I feel convinced that there are prizes for CLARITY and CRISPR sometime in the future, but not yet.

Although I can't predict who will win, one thing that I think we can all bet on is that someone will be woken up at the crack of dawn by a phone call, someone will inevitably be left out, and someone's ardent belief in the possibility that his or her favorite scientist was somehow hijacked by a rival field will be shored up by another data point.

I will make a list of other predictions as I hear them.

Update: Here's Everyday Scientist and here's the Pipeline.

19 comments:

  1. It's probably too early for CRISPR and other genome editing techniques, though I'd definitely say they'll get a prize eventually. I'd put my bet on optogenetics to win the Chemistry prize this year. It's been nearly a decade since Deisseroth's lab published their first key paper in the field. The problem is that it may difficult to split out the credit for the prize (though Deisseroth would have to be on the list).

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    1. True. although I still remain a bit skeptical about the premature recognition of optogenetics. Not that the technology has not been validated, but I think it needs to be used by more people.

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  2. Polymers? POLYMERS? Where are the polymers?

    Oh wait. Dirty chemistry doesn't win.

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    1. Matyjaszewski? Agree that a prize for polymers has not been given out for a while.

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    2. When I hear polymers, what comes to my mind is someone like Sam Edwards. Wrong field, I guess. Edwards missed out when de Gennes won in 1991, anyway.

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  3. Has to be basic science!
    LED would not exist without conducting polymer/molecular electronics. It is for sure LED will not win.

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  4. I agree with you and I hope Harry B. Gray and Allen Bard will win this year with Goodenough. Being an inorganic chemistry enthusiast, I also hope that Harry B. Gray's contributions to inorganic chemistry and biochemistry will be recognized in addition to electron transfer in proteins. He's among the founders of bioinorganic chemistry.

    But, I also think that Derek Lowe's predictions (Venter, Ames) are very likely to win. So, I won't be surprised.

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  5. Oh, just remembered! If Harry B. Gray wins, I will be the owner of his book Electrons and Chemical Bonding (1st edition) with another Nobel Prize winner Mulliken's notes and signature on it. That will make me even happier!

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    1. Great! If Gray is given a prize for bioinorganic chemistry then it seems it would make sense to rope Lippard in rather than Bard.

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    2. You are absolutely right. So, may be all these names will get their prizes in the next 2 years. We'll see soon.

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  6. If Frechet gets it, it will be for lithography, not for dendrimers. MOFs are useful for pretty pictures and not much else - no prize for zeolites, which are much more important.

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    1. Agreed. Zeolites definitely belong in the "so obviously useful that we take them for granted" category.

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  7. Glad to see the usual cliches of organocatalysis, click chemistry, and total synthesis have not been been mentioned yet...

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    1. Total synthesis is definitely not on the horizon now. I guess organocatalysis's promise has also not panned out yet in terms of broad applicability.

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  8. I would bet K. C. Nicolaou get Nobel nod this year.

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  9. I think synthetic biology (Michael Elowitz, Stan Leibler, Jim Collins) could be in line this year or soon. The field is over a decade old and has had a very big impact.

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  10. If it goes to the Lithium-Ion Battery (which would be well-deserved), it would have to be : John Goodenough, Yoshio Nishi, Rachid Yazami, just like the Draper Prize 2014 (https://www.nae.edu/Projects/Awards/DraperPrize/DraperWinners/105792.aspx)

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  11. John B. Goodenough surely has to win this year. Either for contributions to electrochemistry with A. J. Bard or for the development of the Li-ion battery with Whittingham (original conception) and Askuro (first functioning cell). #morethangoodenough

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  12. Excuse me..... Akira Yoshino at Sony I believe (first functioning cell)

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