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Chemistry Nobel Watch 2015

We’re down to only a couple of days before the Chemistry nobel prize is awarded – so who’s it going to? The list of possibilities each year divides into the same broad categories: relatively recent discoveries that everyone agrees are Nobel-worthy, slightly more long-term projects that have grown in importance over the years, and then the list of older breakthroughs that are Nobelable, but for one reason or another haven’t been given the prize yet. (Here’s my set of predictions from last year, for what they’re worth).

In the first category is CRISPR. Let the complaining begin about how it’s really a biology prize, etc. – my feelings on that issue have already been vented thoroughly (and can be summed up as “some folks probably need to expand their definition of chemistry”). Thomson Reuters has the highest-profile set of Nobel predictions, and they have Emmannuele Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna on their lists of finalists for this discovery. I think that CRISPR could definitely win, but (1) there’s some controversy about the list of awardees (for example, why didn’t Thomson Reuters add Feng Zhang to the list?), and (2) this is a rapidly evolving field, and if the Nobel committee hasn’t already awarded this, they might decide that recent discoveries would make it prudent to wait until things settle out a bit more.

Another one in that category is immunotherapy for cancer, which you’d think has an even stronger case for showing up in the Physiology or Medicine category eventually, but you never know. Everyday Scientist has several commenters going for this one, with James Allison being a consensus pick, along with several other candidates (including the 94-year-old Evelyn Witkin). I think that this area is most certainly worth a prize, but I don’t see it happening under the chemistry banner when it’s an such an obvious medical advance.

You’ll note that neither of these hot topics are smack in the middle of chemistry. Sometimes there is such a discovery (buckyballs, for one), but this year there’s no obvious burning chemistry pick, so everyone has to move on to the second and third categories if it’s not going to be CRISPR. In that second category, Thomson Reuters has Carolyn Bertozzi as a pick for the field of bio-orthogonal chemistry, and I’d be glad to see a prize in the whole chemical biology area. It’s likely, though, that if the committee does go that way that other people will be on the award (and one of them could be Barry Sharpless, for his second chemistry Nobel). I think that something like this should happen, but I don’t think it necessarily has to be this year, either.

In the third category, perhaps the longest-serving member is 93-year-old John Goodenough, for the discovery of lithium-ion batteries along with M. Stanley Whittingham. Such batteries are, of course, ubiquitous in the modern world, and like many such objects, it’s worth remembering that someone had to think them up. Battery technology has been particularly important, what with mobile devices and energy storage needs, and the lithium-ion chemistry has been hard to beat. As Wavefunction points out in his Nobel prediction post, though, the committee hasn’t given out many device prizes over the years, and last year’s blue LED prize in physics was one of them. Another longstanding name in the Nobel queue is Harry Gray – he’s in the interesting category of people that many think have already won the prize, but actually haven’t. (The late Neil Bartlett was in that group as well, for his discovery of noble gas halides). Bruce Ames has been in the line for a long time as well, and since the Ames test is used to test individual compounds, he could plausibly come in under chemistry. Richard Zare‘s name is also a fixture of these lists, for a pure physical/analytical chemistry award.

Some of the prize possibilities in this area (and the second category) fall under the heading of “lifetime achievement awards”, which is a hard way to get a Nobel. The committee prefers to have one big thing to point at, which is where George Whitesides, Stuart Schreiber, Peter Schultz, Robert Langer and others may run into difficulties, although their work (and careers) have been at an extremely high level. Of course, lithium-ion batteries are a big definite thing to point at, for sure, but there you have it. The ideal Nobel would probably be something big, unexpected, tangible and bounded, done within the last ten years or so and recognized as perhaps the last word on the subject. Physics tends to produce more things like this than chemistry (the Higgs boson, for example), which makes handicapping that award a bit easier.

Outside of such  juggernauts, I have no idea who or what the committee might pick in any given year. Over time, you can look at the selections and form an opinion about how they’ve done, but year by year the signal/noise is much too high. Just to pick one example, everyone wondered for years why metal-catalyzed couplings hadn’t won the award, until they finally did, and eventually it’ll only be people who were around at the time who remember that there was any sort of delay at all. If you’re putting money down (you fool) then perhaps the best you can do is take a look at the general areas of chemistry that have won more often, and the ones that have won recently, and bet accordingly. Good luck, though, because you’re going to need it. We’ll see what happens Wednesday morning!

33 comments on “Chemistry Nobel Watch 2015”

  1. Sanjay says:

    I really have enjoyed Whitesides’ work but there would be a certain irony in his getting a Nobel: indelibly etched in my memory is a recollection of him savagely and hilariously mocking chemists who breathlessly anticipate getting a Nobel.

  2. xxx says:

    Giving Whitesides a Nobel is like giving a Nobel prize to MIT, Harvard, Caltech etc. He’s always had a huge team of workers. I appreciate his work, but I don’t think it’s Nobel worthy.

  3. Materialist says:

    Can you do a post on the material Starlite please?!

  4. a. nonymaus says:

    Goodenough and others would be a reasonable pick, surprising that it hasn’t been done yet. My perennial favorites include O’regan, Graetzel, Honda, and Fujishima. It may be that the committee is waiting for one of them to shove off so they have three people to give the award to.

  5. Molecular Architect says:

    This year’s Nobel for Medicine is a big win for Natural Products Chemistry award. William Campbell, a research fellow emeritus at Drew University in New Jersey, and Satoshi Omura of Japan shared the prize with Youyou Tu of China. Ivermectin and artemisinin!

  6. biotechtoreador says:

    So no more predictions that Click Chemistry i.e. “putting a new name on ancient reactions” will net KBS a second Nobel (http://sciencewatch.com/nobel/predictions/modular-click-chemistry)? The first one was strongly deserved, to be clear.

  7. Magrinho says:

    Tough one this year…

    I believe that CRISPR is inevitable but the committee will wait for the inventorship/contributor picture to clear up. Optogenetics is also a LOCK but it has to be for Medicine, right?

    But here it is: Breslow/Schreiber/Schultz “Achievements at the Interface between Chemistry and Biology”.

    Breslow got screwed years ago by a sociopathic graduate student – he’s done some really cool stuff.

  8. Andy II says:

    Good choices are mentioned here. If we consider Nobel prizes as prizes for those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind” in physics, chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature (from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Prize_in_Chemistry), I agree with Derek’s statement that we should wait for some time how great discoveries would impact human lives for CRISPR or “orthogonal” chemistry. This year’s Medicine prize is more suitable for Chemistry prize as Molecular Architect says.

  9. Jeff says:

    “And this year’s recipient is… Food Babe. Because, you know, chemicals. Ugh!”

    1. Anony-mouse says:

      Regarding Breslow – come on ! Discovering that an alkyl hydroxamate (SAHA) was a histone deacetylase inhibitor was PURE GENIUS (never mind trichostatin A) !

  10. Anonymous says:

    Not sure if Breslow belongs on a list with Schreiber/Schultz. And it’s arguable that while Schreiber/Schultz contributed immeasurable things academically their impact on the world at large aren’t as big.

  11. steve says:

    My vote is for Samuel Hahnemann for discovering homeopathy. Yeah, I know he’s dead but if homeopathy can create drugs without having any active molecules present then we shouldn’t disqualify Hahnemann just because he has no active molecules left either.

  12. MTK says:

    Although RNA interference was recognized about a decade ago with a Nobel there’s still a high probability, imo, that Victor Ambros and Gary Ruvkun could snag a Nobel soon for discovery of and work with miRNA.

    The two of them of been co-recipients of some other prestigious awards including the Laskar Award and Wolf Prize.

  13. KCN says:

    WHAT about ME, has everyone forgotten me since my move? ;-((

  14. Thiago Azurri says:

    It’s time for Baran this year. Nobody expects it, but it can get real. The impact of his work is not to be overestimated and by far more important for mankind than e.g. click chemistry

  15. André Brändli says:

    My personal bet for the Nobel in Chemistry is on biochemist Peter Walter of UC San Francisco and Kazutoschi Mori of Kyoto University for discovering the”unfolded protein response (UPR) signaling pathway. Central to the pathway is the ER resident transmembrane kinase/endoribonuclease, Ire1, which is one of three known sensors of the folding capacity within the endoplasmic reticulum lumen responsible for initiating UPR signaling. This intracellular quality control system detects harmful misfolded proteins in the endoplasmic reticulum and signals the nucleus to carry out corrective measures. Walter and Mori shared the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences (2005), Canada Gairdner International Award (2009), Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine (2014) and the Lasker Award (2014) in the past. Seems that the Nobel is the last to be added to this impressive list of awards….!

  16. et says:

    @Thiago

    Good joke.

  17. Bryan says:

    A big discovery that the Nobel committee has not yet recognized is the effects of DNA methylation and histone modifications on gene regulation. Cedar and Razin (for the former) and Allis (for the latter) would seem like good candidates who have been awarded prizes for these discoveries by other organizations. However, there are many others who have made important contributions, so maybe the committee is purposefully skipping over this field to avoid controversy. Of course, many would argue that this work would fit more in physiology and medicine, but I would not be surprised to see it win the chemistry prize.

  18. Potassium Cyanide says:

    Nicolaou for showing that an infinite amount of hands running an infinite amount of reactions (costing an infinite amount of taxpayer dollars) can make large secondary metabolites

  19. hn says:

    Glad to see a chemistry prize given in Medicine and Physiology that truly made a difference in the world. In comparison, almost all the work described on this page is peanuts.

  20. Useless Molecule says:

    @Potassium Cyanide

    You forgot the word “useless” between large and secondary in your sentence.

    @Thiago

    Very good joke.

  21. GermanChemist says:

    @Derek: when talking about click chemistry, I think one must not forget Rolf Huisgen who actually started the whole thing.

  22. sodium cyanide says:

    @Potassium Cyanide

    forgot to mention: using army of underpaid postdocs/PhDs and modern slavery (aka PI deciding how many hours you should work without vacation – even walmart have better HR policy)

  23. chiz says:

    Ed Southern won a lasker a few years back for his blotting technique.

    On the other hand, I agree that epigenetics is probably due – especially since we’ve starting discovering in the last few years how complex it gets. There are something like a dozen or so different epigenetic bases in DNA that have been spotted and nearly as many in mRNA.

  24. Matt says:

    Those Aussie polymer dudes. Because they are Aussie.

  25. See Arr Oh says:

    I’m really thinking DNA repair this year. Maybe Lindahl, Sancar, Modrich? : )

  26. petros says:

    Remarkably prescient of you See Ar Oh

  27. Nicolaou says:

    I’m still waiting for the call …

  28. stu says:

    @Nicolaou

    Schreiber too

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