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!