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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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February 13, 2012

Nobel Prizes in Chemistry For People Who Aren't Chemists

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Posted by Derek

Nobelist Roald Hoffman has directly taken on a topic that many chemists find painful: why aren't more chemistry Nobel prizes given, to, well. . .chemists?

". . .the last decade has been especially unkind to "pure" chemists, asa only four of ten Nobel awards could be classified as rewarding work comfortably ensconced in chemistry departments around the world. And five of the last ten awards have had a definite biological tinge to them.

I know that I speak from a privileged position, but I would urge my fellow chemists not to be upset."

He goes on to argue that the Nobel committee is actually pursuing a larger definition of chemistry than many chemists are, and that we should take it and run with it. Hoffmann says that the split between chemistry and biochemistry, back earlier in the 20th century, was a mistake. (And I think he's saying that if we don't watch out, we're going to make the same mistake again, all in the name of keeping the discipline pure).

We're going to run into the same problem over and over again. What if someone discovers some sort of modified graphene that's useful for mimicking photosynthesis, and possibly turning ambient carbon dioxide into a useful chemical feedstock? What if nanotechnology really does start to get off the ground, or another breakthrough is made towards room-temperature superconductors, this time containing organic molecules? What would a leap forward in battery technology be, if not chemistry? Or schemes to modify secreted proteins or antibodies to make them do useful things no one has ever seen? Are we going to tell everyone "No, no. Those are wonderful, those are great discoveries. But they're not chemistry. Chemistry is this stuff over here, that we complain about not getting prizes for".

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News | Press Coverage | Who Discovers and Why


1. Curious Wavefunction on February 13, 2012 1:40 PM writes...

Hoffmann's editorial should be a slap on the wrist for those who want to keep chemistry "pure". The problem is that nature is always more creative than we are, and often finds ways to use one conveniently defined field of science in a wholly different field. It's not so much the Nobel committee as Nature which is pursuing a very broad definition of what we lowly humans call chemistry.

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2. Dick Wife on February 13, 2012 1:59 PM writes...

So what is Chemistry? I like the Dutch word "Scheikunde" or the knowledge to cut bonds (and also to make them). Chemistry is about changing one compound into another - hopefully using revolutionary techniques which are becoming fewer and fewer. The quantum-leaps are about understanding (Hoffmann made a major contribution here) and implementation or totally new discoveries (metathesis is a fine example). In between are the incremental additions to the chemistry resulting from the quantum leaps. Nobel Prizes are awarded with due recognition to the people who have made the major advances - making and beaking bonds and what this means to the world where we live. How many Chemists still think they are in the running for the next Prizes? I hope they add to this blog!

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3. MolecularGeek on February 13, 2012 2:09 PM writes...

@2: I'd even go for a more expansive definition- Chemistry is about understanding molecular structure, and its relationship with macroscopic properties.

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4. Been T on February 13, 2012 2:41 PM writes...

After Obama got the 'peace prize' I'd say the Nobel is a nice cash prize but a piece of trash as far as awards are concerned.

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5. smurf on February 13, 2012 3:45 PM writes...

It is just a prize, not more.

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6. HenrikOlsen on February 13, 2012 5:28 PM writes...

@4 The "Peace price" lost its meaning when Kissinger got it.

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7. Anonymous on February 13, 2012 8:03 PM writes...


I believe the fact that Obama got the peace prize is really what's dictating his behavior towards Iran. He may feel bound by "peace" and has to show that he is worthy of the award by being soft on Iran. Another Jimmy Carter type character, but this one is bound by the "peace prize" hand cuffs and left wing cronies.

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8. irii on February 13, 2012 8:06 PM writes...

maybe you peace purists should be pursuing a larger definition of peace

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9. milkshaken on February 13, 2012 8:17 PM writes...

my large definition of peace shall encompass transition-metal catalyzed asymmetric reactions with substrate/catalyst ratios above 1000 but only if they work under air in protic solvents and with unprotected substrates. "The Peace Nobel is not here to be possessed by faint-hearted chemists."

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10. Greg Hlatky on February 13, 2012 9:43 PM writes...

I have an admiration for Grigori Perelman, who declined the Fields Medal in 2006 and Charles Ives who, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1947, gave the money away, saying, "Prizes are for boys. I'm grown up."

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11. Anonymous on February 14, 2012 12:05 AM writes...

@ 8&9

My definition of "peace" is my 9 mm "Piece". LOL

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12. Alf on February 14, 2012 3:55 AM writes...

@11 Zing!

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13. Fluorine on February 15, 2012 7:03 AM writes...

how many nobel prizes in physiology and medicine did not go to physicians?

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14. dearieme on February 15, 2012 7:36 AM writes...

How many Nobels are awarded for work that has benefited mankind, as distinct from work which might, maybe, someday, benfit mankind?

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15. subbu on February 16, 2012 12:59 PM writes...

Maybe one should look at the betterment of human life rather than prizes. Chemistry has been dominating for a while and has hit a road block and most of the bench work has been done and it time to put them to use

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16. Proteus on February 20, 2012 5:49 PM writes...

To be fair to the Nobel committee, the Peace prize is given by a completely different set of people than the actual Nobels.

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