It’s Nobel Prize week! This morning we already had the Medicine/Physiology award (Yoshinori Ohsumi, for autophagy), and Chemistry is coming out on Wednesday. As is traditional, we shall now uselessly speculate about who will (or should) win the thing.
I’m late to the game this year: here are predictions by Wavefunction, an all-star webinar at C&E News, and Thomson Reuters. For good measure, here’s my take from last year, and ChemBark’s list from last year is worth a look, too. As those show, all science Nobel predictions can be binned into several categories, among them (1) big worthy discoveries that took place so long ago that many people probably think that they got the Nobel already, (2, at the other end of that sliding scale) big recent discoveries that are clearly Nobel material and are given one as soon as is decent, (3) lifetime achievement awards (similar to the first category, but with the difference being more that this person is clearly a great and influential scientist, whose discoveries are scattered over several different fields), (4) the field (discoveries neither ancient nor incredibly recent that come from the list of Nobel-worthy work, which is in longer supply than Nobel prizes themselves), and (5) biologists. I’m not as upset by that last category as some people are, but I don’t deny that it’s a real category, either.
I’d name these as (respectively) Beat the Reaper, Holy Cow, How Come This Person Doesn’t Have a Nobel Already, Nobel Classic, and. . .Biologists. To be fair, once in a while there’s some bleedover from Physics as well, but hey, that’s the thing about being the Central Science and all. So what are we looking at this year?
In the first category would be, for example, Goodenough and Whittingham for lithium-ion batteries. John Goodenough himself is well into his 90s. Bruce Ames is clearly on this list as well, as is Harry Gray, and several others. Moving on, I don’t think we have any major chemical discoveries in the Holy Cow category at the moment, so that one can wait until we do (to give you an idea of what one of those looks like, I agree with Wavefunction, and pretty much everyone else, that Physics this year will be for the detection of gravity waves. How can it not be?) In the third category come (among others) names like Bob Langer and George Whitesides, first-class scientists who have contributed in numerous areas and thus don’t have an elevator-pitch Nobel case. The next category, Nobel Classic, is a large one, and you can list a lot of plausible contenders, sorted either by names or by ideas. Bioorthogonal chemistry? DNA synthesis and sequencing? Bioinorganic chemistry? Metal-organic frameworks? Atom-transfer polymerization? Photoredox chemistry may be in this category in a few years, but otherwise I’m not seeing much in the way of “pure” synthetic organic chemistry prizes.
In the Biologists category, of course, there’s CRISPR. As opposed to most of the other topics on the list, this one is absolutely, positively going to win a Nobel; the only question is when. This year will work, next year should be fine, too, or a couple of years from now. The committee may be waiting for more dust to settle, honestly, and there’s a lot of it floating around. Most people see this as Doudna, Charpentier, and Zhang; Reuters manages to have Zhang and Church but neither Charpentier nor Doudna, which would be an injustice. (Note that they had Charpentier and Doudna picked last year, without Church or Zhang, which is apparently what using a citation algorithm alone will make you do). There are, of course, other biology prizes that are quite plausible (unfolded protein response, nuclear receptors, optogenetics) but for the moment these possibilities seem to be overshadowed by the CRISPR story.
The thing is, the Nobel Committee is completely willing to surprise everyone. No one saw the natural products prize coming last year, for example. (If you’d like to see what the nominations/awards picture was up until 1950, thanks to the opening of the Nobel archives from that era, this interactive page from C&E News is an excellent way to do it). If I were betting, which I’m not, I’d look over the possibilities above and try to find someone to take the other end of a “none of the above” wager. We’ll know in a couple of days.