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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 4, 2006

Another Chemistry Prize for Biology

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Posted by Derek

As everyone will have heard, Roger Kornberg has been awarded the chemistry Nobel for his work on RNA polymerase. This is certainly deserved, since his lab has been working on this important area for years, gradually zooming in on the enzyme's structure and function through biological and X-ray methods.

But he wasn't on anyone's short list to win the Chemistry prize, and I doubt if Kornberg considers himself a chemist. For some time now, the Nobel people have been using the prize as an overflow from the Medicine/Physiology area, which this morning led Paul Bracher over at the Endless Frontier blog to call for chemistry to colonize the Physics prize. Kornberg wasn't on his long list of candidates with odds, because most everyone on his list was, well, a chemist.

But it is nice to have another enzyme-studying Kornberg from Stanford with a Nobel. Arthur Kornberg is still alive, and still publishing papers as of a few years ago. I hope he's in good enough health to enjoy his son's achievement.

Comments (22) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. Carmen on October 4, 2006 8:58 AM writes...

It's interesting that RNA-related work won on two fronts, and that the committee seems to like structural biology lately. The bio-chem encroachment will certainly fuel the "chemistry identity crisis" cause. Maybe "the central science" moniker needs to go.

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2. Ashutosh on October 4, 2006 9:11 AM writes...

If we look at it, the prize is as much for X-ray crystallography as for molecular biology. And I consider crystallography to be much closer to chemistry- after all, it's structure determination. But yeah, as always, there will be many molecular biologists in line along with chemists for prizes.

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3. Paul on October 4, 2006 9:20 AM writes...

Yeah...and Rod MacKinnon basically won for crystallography, too.

I feel kind of dirty for being disappointed. Kornberg did some nice work and had no control over his winning in chemistry. Like you say, Kornberg probably doesn't even consider himself a chemist. He deserves congratulations; the Nobel Committee does not. Can they just make a biology prize already? They had no problem inventing one in economics.

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4. Palo on October 4, 2006 9:50 AM writes...

Derek, I hope I don't offend my chemist colleagues (I'm myself a former chemist), but as a chemist you have to realize that Chemistry is a science of a lesser public impact. Done at the edges of important matters, it's physics, done at the edges of interesting issues, it becomes biology. You ask for the final explanation of matter and energy and you are a physicist, you are interested in the beauty and complexity of life, you are a biologist. Sorry, chemistry is a practical science, but today its mostly a set of tools.

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5. booger on October 4, 2006 10:13 AM writes...

I have to echo Palo's comments. Chemistry proper, as a science, is dead. There are no more important discoveries being made, only new way to make things, or improve efficiencies.... booorrring. On the other hand, the complexity of life and the universe boggles the mind. Important discoveries in biology and physics constantly remind us of this. The trend of the chemistry prize as a biochemistry surrogate is sure to continue.

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6. Jim Hu on October 4, 2006 10:17 AM writes...

Bracher had GFP on his short list according to your earlier post. Is that more chemical than this? The commentary over there seems to be "I'm ignorant about important work in structural biology, therefore this is underserved". Feh!

I'll be more sympathetic to the complaints about structural biologists getting chemistry prizes when I see chemists stop asking for money from NIH. Not. going. to. happen.

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7. Jokerine on October 4, 2006 11:25 AM writes...

I don't agree with those claiming chemistry is just a tool. With me agrees another Nobel Laurate, Jean-Marie Lehn, who said: I don't know about important questions, but chemistry can answer the most basic question. The question being, how does matter become complex.

This was the prelude to a talk on molecular selfassembly. And that is just one area of chemistry where there is still a lot to learn.

As to Kornberg, I think his work is great, but not very chemical. There are still a lot of chemists out there who would deserve a nobel prize. I do like the suggestion to make a life science prize part of the awards.

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8. Tim on October 4, 2006 11:34 AM writes...

In response to Palo, I disagree but don't see the relevance of his comment in the first place. The chemistry Nobel was established to reward breakthroughs in chemistry, not to recognize any major scientific achievement that could be shoehorned into the field. It seems to me that this year's award (along with others in recent years) isn't just unsympathetic to the wishes of traditional chemists - it's at odds with the original intent of Nobel's will. The prestige of the prize stems for the fact that it is the paragon of achievement in a field, and the Nobel Committee should consider just how long that prestige will last if they keep up their promiscuity with field boundaries.

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9. Morten on October 4, 2006 11:36 AM writes...

I hate to say I told you so but I did tell you so. And I don't really hate it - in fact it brings me quite a bit of joy.

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10. Boris on October 4, 2006 11:37 AM writes...

No more important discoveries in chemistry? You sound like the guy who wanted to close the patent office back in Abe Lincoln's time.

To really understand biology, you have to understand chemistry. Otherwise all you have are some pretty slides where the triangle comes close to the square and then the squigglies emerge and attach to the polygon. A lot of times that's all you need, but you don't truly understand the whole process.

To really understand chemistry you have to understand physics, and to really understand physics you have to understand math.

One can make contributions to any of the four, without treading too far into the others, and you can view any of the four as a "set of tools" to help you understand your niche a little better. We live in an interdisciplinary world, and if you really want to describe a process, you better be willing to wade into the deeper waters and pull them all together.

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11. MTK on October 4, 2006 11:41 AM writes...

I'm not exactly sure what is biology and what is chemistry anymore, but I do believe that it is biology that has become more chemical and not chemistry that has become more biological.

Let me throw this out: traditionally, physics is about atoms, chemistry is about molecules, biology is about organisms. Modern day biology is molecular biology, in other words, chemistry of organisms. Chemistry is biology. It's not a tool, it's the very essence of the science as its conducted today.

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12. Ashutosh on October 4, 2006 12:51 PM writes...

As far as honoring Nobel's original intent is concerned, that transgression has happened a long time back. I think that instituting a new prize for biology and then making the medicine nobel the focus of more clinical discoveries would make sense. I don't think anybody is debating Kornberg's suitability for the prize, but many are definitely lamenting the fact that he was chosen above other core chemists who were in line for the prize. Kornberg's research did involve chemistry, but chemistry almost exclusively as a guiding (and not even predictive) tool.

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13. Joey on October 4, 2006 2:02 PM writes...

Arthur Kornberg gave a talk here at UCSF in the last couple of years, and seemed to be doing fine. He talked a lot about polyphosphate. And IIRC, he used an overhead projector, no Powerpoint for that man.

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14. Jim Hu on October 4, 2006 3:04 PM writes...

#8 Tim:

I don't see how you can claim that the prizes are contrary to the wishes expressed in Nobel's will, since Nobel left the interpretation of what constitutes the fields of chemistry and physics to the Swedish Academy of Sciences. The will itself doesn't say chemistry but not biochemistry.

The determination of molecular 3-D structure in atomic detail is something that I suspect 99.9% of the Chemistry departments in the world would consider within their intellectual mission. Do you disagree? That all molecules are not alike in their significance is not new; neither is the blurring of demarcations between disciplines.

If you're going to complain about the literal interpretation of the will, the biggest violation is to the clause:

prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.[emphasis added]

That it is not done that way is a good thing, IMHO.

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15. Palo on October 4, 2006 4:26 PM writes...

As many point out, the limits between Biology - Chemistry - Physiscs are not that clear anymore. Was Tom Cech's Nobel on intron splicing Biology or Chemistry? It's both. Or it's Chemistry, driven by a Biology problem. And that is the key. Unfortunately, there aren't any Grand Theories in Chemistry. There are plenty in Biology and Physics. I disagree with Tim. I don't think giving the Nobel to Kornberg violates in any way Alfred Nobel's intention, it only reflects the evolution of science in the last century.

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16. kiwi on October 4, 2006 5:09 PM writes...

as someone on the chemistry side of the ever murkier chemistry/biology line, i have no issues with kornberg getting the prize. and the view from here on the frontline, its not biology invading chemistry, its the other way around. biologists are having to come to terms with life as a loose collection of atoms, and chemists are making enormous progress in unravelling just how life works on a number of fronts. if anything, chemistry is a victim of its own success.

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17. HI on October 4, 2006 7:37 PM writes...

I agree with Jim Hu. Bracher also had RNAi with Fire and Mello's names on his short list. Fire and Mello are geneticists! Kornberg did structural and biochemical studies and I might add that his Ph.D is in chemistry.

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18. Philip on October 4, 2006 10:05 PM writes...

If you look back at the Nobel prize winners in the sciences, you soon recognize that it's mostly about x-ray crystallography. Something approaching half of the prizes have some component of structural chemistry which is partially solved by crystallography. The Academy awards half of the prizes to classical scientist working in a classical field. In chemistry, it's people like Sharpless or Grignard. No arguments there. The other half go to crystallographers who stretch from the math side of physics (Jerome Karle) to the fundamentals of biology (Watson and Crick).

Once you realize that half of the prizes go to crystallographers, it all makes sense and there is no longer a reason to argue about it.

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19. Ashutosh on October 5, 2006 11:05 AM writes...

Why don't they have a more international team of scientists on the Nobel committee? That would be more fair. After all, why should the Swedish members of the Nobel committee be the only ones to decide whether an Einstein or Woodward warrants a Nobel or not? This is exactly the aspect of the proceedings which Richard Feynman criticized.

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20. TFox on October 6, 2006 1:29 PM writes...

#3: Just to be picky, the quote-unquote Nobel prize in Economics is not a true Nobel prize, and was not invented by the Nobel committee. Some economists thought there should be one, so they raised money, named it after Nobel, and managed to get it awarded at the same ceremony. See .

As for Biology, what's wrong with the "Physiology or Medicine" category again?

And as for giving the Physics prize to a chemist, all I can say is, better that than a prize for string theory.

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21. Jim Hu on October 6, 2006 7:05 PM writes...

Watson and Crick got theirs in Physiology or Medicine for what was arguably a chemistry achievement.

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22. Physics Nobel Prize Winner 2011 on October 6, 2011 11:24 PM writes...

You should try my favorite video: "Physics Nobel Prize Winner 2011".

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