Winners of the Nobel Prize For Chemistry Don't Get the Attention They Deserve


Outside of a judo tournament, I have never thrown an object in anger, except when I was doing my organic chemistry homework. (Full disclosure: it was my pencil and it hit the wall at a speed that vindicated my parents' decision not to invest in my baseball career beyond t-ball). It takes little to spot an organic chemistry student in a college library. If it is near exam time, chances are they will have an exhausted and/or frustrated look, and will be guzzling down whatever nearby source of caffeine they can find. More distinguishable though, is the model kit they have in front of them. The model kit isn’t for a ship or a car, but for molecules. You see the hardest thing for organic chemistry students to grasp, at least initially, is to think three-dimensionally about molecules and how they react. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year went to biologists Michael Levitt, Martin Karplus, and Arieh Warshel, who took imagining a molecule in three dimensions out of the mind and put it onto a computer screen. 

The basic idea of their work was to harness the power of computers, combining knowledge of chemistry and quantum physics, to reveal the structure of the structure of many of the smallest molecules in the human body. The work began in the 1970s at Harvard, where Martin Karplus had his laboratory. Utilizing an extremely powerful computer for the time (it was named Golem after the creature from Jewish folklore), they developed a groundbreaking computer program based on classical theories in physics. As the program grew in complexity, they were eventually able to gain an understanding of what biological molecules looked like. Alas, they could still only examine molecules that were not engaged in reactions, and they wanted to look at enzymes.

Enzymes are molecules that facilitate chemical reactions in living organisms. Understanding enzymes is key to understanding how an organism functions. By making classical and quantum physics collaborate in a smoother fashion, they successfully published the first computerized model of an enzymatic reaction in 1976. Their program was particularly revolutionary because it could be used for any molecule regardless of its size. This has been a great contribution to science. The methods developed by Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel can be used for any kind of chemistry. Levitt dreams of one day being able to simulate a living organism on the molecular level. Such a dream is lofty, but as computer power increases it may not be out of reach. 

When you look at the different fields involved in their research (physics, chemistry, and biology), you notice the theme of consilience, the idea that as fields converge, science may one day be a continuous field of knowledge. Other work such as the fields of quantum biology, environmental toxicology, and cognitive neuroscience highlight this growing trend. As the diversity of topics these three men must have understood to have developed their work highlights, and as E.O. Wilson constantly preaches, young scientists should take time to learn from a large breadth of fields. You never know what information could lead to the next great discovery.