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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

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, 2011

Yep, That's A Nobel Prize, Right There

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Posted by Derek

Today's announcement of the Physics Nobel came as no surprise. I remember when those results came out in 1998 (that the universe's expansion was accelerating rather than slowing down to some degree), and immediately thinking "Nobel if it holds up". I thought the same thing about RNA interference when I first heard about it, and there are many other discoveries in the same category. Not all of them have been given Nobels, but what I mean are things that are immediately obvious that they are Nobel-worthy.

Now, here's my question for today: how many of these have we had in chemistry? And how many have we had recently? It seems to me that (out of the indisputable chemistry-and-not-biology prizes), there aren't as many as you might find in other fields. Perhaps chemistry is a mature enough science that fundamental surprises and breakthroughs are not as common, and when they occur, they come on more slowly. Thoughts?

Comments (24) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. alf on October 4, 2011 12:07 PM writes...

Derek, your observation may be true but I doubt it is because "chemistry is a mature enough science". I've have noticed that you often use this type of argument for explaining an apparent lack of productivity (e.g. paraphrasing "maybe the easy low hanging fruit drug targets have all be prosecuted"). Are you saying that physics is less mature than chemistry?

I agree that some discoveries are so fundamental that it is clear that they are "Nobel-worthy" if they hold up (e.g. a new form of carbon - Buckyballs).

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2. My-2-cents on October 4, 2011 12:09 PM writes...

I totally agree with you on this one, Derek. I remember that Science magazine honors it as Scientific Discovery of the Year.
Last year's chemistry prize is one of Nobel-worthy discoveries. Wonder why it took that long to be recognized, though.

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3. Carl Lumma on October 4, 2011 12:10 PM writes...

From a science history perspective, I reckon chemistry is a casualty of post-WWII anti-German sentiment (like the Accordion). Or for whatever reason, it failed to adapt to advances and take things like materials science, nanotechnology, and microbiology under its wing. The result is that fewer and fewer people are working in chemistry and therefore fewer great discoveries get made. I don't think the 'mature discipline' thing makes much sense. Sky's the limit on engineering with the electromagnetic force.

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4. Will on October 4, 2011 12:19 PM writes...

In Physics, a single experiment can reveal a fundamentally new truth - expanding universe, or more recently, a neutrino that goes faster than light

Most chemistry is a series of small steps, each discovery incrementally building on what came before. I don't know exactly how olefin metathesis came about, but I bet it wasn't as serendipitous as diels and alder mixing dienes and olefins together and finding rings.

it took at least 10 years (if not more) for palladium chemistry to be revealed as broadly useful as it is to so many different types of substrates.

maybe knowles initial asymmetric reduction could qualify as a wow, but i honestly don't know if something did not come before

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5. patentgeek on October 4, 2011 12:35 PM writes...

A few that immediately occurred to me as Nobel-worthy at the time I read the early work:

Thomas Cech's catalytic RNA work (almost inspired me to leave total synthesis for biochemistry)

Protein structure by NMR (Wuthrich et al)

Kornberg's work on RNA Pol II and transcription, absolutely

Of course,just about every Woodward synthesis inspired that OMG feeling as it appeared in the literature, for those of the era. In earlier days, I can only imagine the unfolding awe at Kendrew's and Perutz's work on protein structure, and at Paulings string of breakthroughs. (Chemical bonding! Orbitals! a-helices! b-sheets! enzyme mechanisms!)

The application of chemistry to understanding biological systems drove a huge chunk of Nobel chemistry in the 20th century; maybe the maturity of that effort has resulted in a slowing of the OMG moments, as Derek suggests. Just my 0.02.

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6. HelicalZz on October 4, 2011 12:45 PM writes...

I think part of the bias lies in how you described it i.e. to be Nobel worthy implies 'discovery'. Chemistry, as is majority practiced today, is more directed than investigative. Better engineering through chemistry (or something like that). As a DNA chemist and one time antisense dabbler (of sorts), when RNAi hit the literature my first thought was - no, that would be too easy, how did we miss it? It was truly discovery-ish, rather than something like PNA (which I worked with at the time), which was designed. Should the same level of effectiveness been achieved by one of the more methodically evaluated DNA mimics (or even zinc fingers), it would not have ever been considered Nobel worthy. But that latter effort is what chemists tend to do, even academically. After all it is hard to get funding for 'lets see what might happen'.

Its that odd non-sensible result that nags and gets the -- Hmmm ... maybe, that tends to end with an occasional prize, but more often dead end.


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7. Myma on October 4, 2011 2:02 PM writes...

A cure for the common cold will be Nobel worthy, when it happens, whether pharmaceutical or vaccine (or whatever it may be).

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8. Doug on October 4, 2011 2:54 PM writes...

Might be 'cuz of this:

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9. luysii on October 4, 2011 3:00 PM writes...

If chemistry was a truly mature science we'd easily be able to design a small molecule which could inhibit hemoglobin S from sickling. None has been forthcoming despite the fact that hemoglobin S is the E. Coli of protein chemistry and has been studied intensively for over 50 years -- see

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10. mjschriver on October 4, 2011 3:45 PM writes...

I think that the mainstream research is all incremental as others have noted but we all knew when Buckminsterfullerene came out that the Nobel would drop from the sky. There has to be an existing received knowledge for it to be dramatically overturned. In my opinion, the instant wins in chemistry would include origin of life and chirality from achirality (similar topics but multiple Nobels possible). One could argue about the first person to get a real grip on "dark reality" (energy or matter)if that would be a Chemistry or Physics Nobel. In terms of spectroscopy we all know that there is something "out there" that is waiting to be discovered as well and a useful, benchtop new spectroscopy to add to IR, Raman and NMR would probably be an instant winner.

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11. GladToMoveToProcess on October 4, 2011 5:01 PM writes...

#4: As I recall, olefin metathesis was a nuisance side reaction in some industrial catalytic processes (oxo reactions, maybe?). The Diels-Alder reaction wasn't seredipitous, at least for Diels and Alder. That cyclopentadiene and benzoquinone formed a 1:1 adduct (as well as a 2:1 product) had been known for years, but the wrong structures had been assigned; even Staudinger made a wrong guess. Diels and Alder figured out the correct structures, and, more importantly, showed the generality of the reaction. So these great "discoveries" came from earlier observations.

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12. Slurk on October 4, 2011 7:09 PM writes...

Agreed the RCM was a known nuisance, but as a researcher/user it was truly a "wow" moment when doing the first one of these reactions = so clean, easy, powerful and novel...

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13. Rock on October 4, 2011 7:29 PM writes...

I had this posted under your first Nobel blog but I will re-post it here. Although this is not a novel reaction, I believe Sharpless did envision the vast potential of 'click chemistry' when he first coined the phrase. I have to say there have been some very clever applications of the technology.

[Probably not this year, but I would think that Sharpless could get it in the next few years for "click chemistry". When has such a relatively simple concept impacted so many different areas of research? A search on "click chemistry" finds about 5000 references. And the number is growing exponentially. 250 in 2007; 1100 in 2010.]

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14. polymer bound on October 4, 2011 8:51 PM writes...

This is a fantastic Nobel story....

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15. Graduate Student on October 4, 2011 11:48 PM writes...

As a relative neophyte, I'm not experienced enough to say. However, I'd be surprised if Sharpless won for click having already won for asymmetric oxidations.

I wonder if we might see a swing toward stuff like Houk or Singleton's work - mechanistic determination and calculations, rather than synthetic methods - if things turn back from the biochem realm.

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16. Kaleberg on October 5, 2011 12:33 AM writes...

I think one of the problems of chemistry is that it does not have a popularly articulated grand program. Biologists have evolution and biology from chemistry. Physicists have their grand unification theories, discovery of the history of the universe, and better explanation for observations. When a new paper comes out, it is often understood in terms of one of these grand programs, e.g. an example in support of evolutionary theory or a data point in estimating the evolution of galaxies. If the paper seems to have taken a larger than usual step, then thoughts of the Nobel Prize come in.

Chemistry did have a grand program in the 19th century: discovering, understanding and organizing the elements. There was also the issue of bridging the life/non-life barrier back when organic chemistry seemed to be meddling in the province of the gods. I am sure there are still a good number of ongoing programs, some grander than others, but no one has popularized them to the extent that educated laymen are even aware of them.

I'll throw out a question to your readers, all of whom know more of chemistry than I: What are the grand programs in modern chemistry, the major organizing themes of discovery?

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17. ddddd on October 5, 2011 3:13 AM writes...

@alf @Derek, I think it's fair to say that physics is as "mature" a science as chemistry. Maybe the nature or the scope of physics just means that there are more "low lying fruit" - not all sciences are created equal!

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18. luysii on October 5, 2011 7:06 AM writes...

Schechtman wins for quasicrystals -- this is chemistry? What are their reactions (if any)? No doubt a fundamental advance in our understanding of matter --but shouldn't it be in physics?

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19. NoTransitionMetals on October 5, 2011 8:29 AM writes...

I am putting money on organocatalysis for a future prize. We are just at the beginning (well, not counting the Hajos-Parrish Wieland-Mischler ketone synthesis!) of a fascinating chemistry field.

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20. cookingwithsolvents on October 5, 2011 9:39 AM writes...

Only a matter of time and commercial impact for dye-sensitized solar cells, IMO.

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21. Vlad Konings on October 5, 2011 11:18 AM writes...

There's a fellow where I work who has adamantly insisted all along that the expansion result is B.S. I wonder if this award allows me to move him into the category of "crank"?

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22. Jeffrey Soreff on October 5, 2011 12:14 PM writes...

re grand programs:
Parts of Drexler and Merkle's nanotechnology
proposals could well qualify, if they are seriously
attempted, and succeed. In particular, the general
use of programmable positional control, and the
general use of mechanochemistry look Nobelish.

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23. Hap on October 5, 2011 2:51 PM writes...

21: I would have had him in the "crank" category for a while - the Nobel Prize just makes it more socially acceptable. Being adamant about any position in science without lots of (good) data to back it up is pretty much the working definition of "crank".

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24. Anthony on October 6, 2011 6:14 PM writes...

Part of the problem may be fuzziness of the borders of the sciences. If cold fusion had actually panned out, would its Nobel prize have been physics or chemistry?

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