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Nobel Season 2016

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.

67 comments on “Nobel Season 2016”

  1. Dr. Manhatten says:

    Announced this morning:
    the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to
    Yoshinori Ohsumi
    for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy
    Well deserved for an important cellular process; but again no one saw this one coming as it wasn’t in the predictions.

    1. It was kind of anticipated. says:

      In fact, Japanese people/media saw it coming this year, and the autophagy field did so as well.

  2. anon says:

    Some pedantic physicist is going to say this anyway, so I’ll get it out of the way: gravitational waves, not gravity waves.

  3. Anon says:

    Does quantum computing have a shot yet?

    1. Another guy named Dan says:

      It does and it doesn’t, both at the same time.

      1. cancer_man says:

        It wins in an infinite number of universe and does not win in an infinite number of universes.

        1. eAnon says:

          only if we include cLogP in the calculations…

          1. myma says:

            oh, I don’t think I have laughed harder in a long while, thank you all

          2. myma says:

            this has me laughing so hard, thank you all!

  4. Hi Derek,
    Thompson Reuters’ list of ‘Citation Laureates’ is updated annually – they nominated Charpentier and Doudna for Crispr last year, so that nomination still stands. This year just adds in Zhang and Church to the mix.
    I reckon they might wait for the patent dispute to die down a bit though, before pushing out the prize…

  5. Me says:

    A few other nominees for a shared prize:

    Pfizer/GSK/Merck R&D management
    Martin Shkreli
    Elizabeth Holmes
    Allergan management

    These guys have proven that science is so easy you can raise $billions based on minimal expenditure in the laboratory – they have dramatically improved the risk:return for investing in pharma and demonstrated that you can ‘make a fortune with no money down’. They have also ‘re-invigorated’ the employment market by flooding it with unemployed scientists, thereby freeing them up to ‘realise their potential’.

    1. mini Me says:

      I thought Pfizer/GSK/Merck R&D management won it for autophagy?

      1. Passerby says:

        Nah. Autophagy recycles components into something useful.

        1. Me says:

          Yeh – Pfizer/GSK/Merck recycle functional constructs into s**t – not autophagy, just digestion

  6. MAZ says:

    Well, Volkswagen won this years Chemistry IgNobel Prize “for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested”.

  7. KC Nicolaou says:

    This is my year! I can feel it!

    1. Me says:

      No, it’s my ear. And stop feeling it! I’m sure there’s a natural product somewhere that will prevent you from doing that!

      1. Phil says:

        Nah, it’s mine.

  8. KCN says:

    *cough* *cough*

  9. DMac says:

    MacMillan for inventing radical chemistry

    1. DMac disciple says:

      Don’t forget organocatalysis and the entire concept of activation modes.

    2. one_man_CRO says:

      and foundation of the three major desert religions!!

  10. anon says:

    George Whitesides for what? For 1000 publications??

    1. Useless Molecule says:

      Good Point

    2. myma says:

      and Langer for what, a thousand post docs and companies?

  11. Leo P33 says:

    Leo Paquette for venerable anion accelerated Oxy-Cope. The most versatile reaction in the chemical space.

    1. UT-A Chemist says:

      or for showing that plagarizing someone else’s R01 is not a viable funding strategy

      1. Leo P. says:

        Ooh, you bitch.

      2. Whoa! says:

        Not being an organic chemist, I had to look up Paquette. Holy cow! Scientific misconduct, falsifying evidence, and perjury only get you a voluntary two year self-exclusion from federal funding. Amazing. What you you have to do to get a lifetime ban?

  12. Emjeff says:

    I nominate Patrick Vallence at GSK for managing to survive as head of R&D despite multi-billion dollar mistakes (Sirtris, darapladib).

    1. Ponce de Leon says:

      David Sinclair – for discovering the Fountain of Youth by way of the Ship of Fools.

      1. cancer_man says:

        Did Leonard Guarante lead six Nobel Prize winners onto the Ship of Fools by getting them on Elysium’s science advisory board for his NR/pterostilbine supplement?

        1. HFM says:

          It’s in the Nobel Prize fine print. You have to endorse at least one crank before you die, otherwise they get their money back. (Why do you think the Nobel only goes to living scientists?)

          1. cancer_man says:

            It is interesting that six Nobel Laureates not only do not think Guarente is a crank but want to be on his advisory board. If just one or two, then OK, but six? It doesn’t mean Guarente or the six are correct but “crank” seems a little strong coming from someone several levels removed from winning a Nobel Prize such as yourself. (grin)

          2. hn says:

            I don’t know what happened there. Some of those 6 are my heroes!

  13. John Wayne says:

    Can we have more topics like this? The comments are (1) cathartic, and (2) hilarious.

    1. Me says:

      Agreed – I think I lowered the tone with my first comment, but am quite pleased at the results. We turned Derek into a circus clown.

  14. Ruth Enium says:

    VV Fokin for metals doing stuff

  15. John B. Goodenough says:

    If I’m not winning this year, I’m changing my middle name to Not.

  16. Anon says:

    Lane Simonian, for showing that he already knows everything there is to know about Alzheimer’s disease just by copying and pasting the results of everyone else, who is too stupid to interpret them properly and join the dots, duh!

  17. Anonymous says:

    From the nytimes today on Yoshinori Ohsumi:

    “Dr. Ohsumi, who was born in 1945 in Fukuoka, Japan, and received a Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo in 1974, floundered at first, trying to find his way. He started out in chemistry but decided it was too established a field with few opportunities.”

    Wish I had his foresight.

    1. hn says:

      True genius there.

    2. Nick K says:

      Ouch! That hurts!

  18. Joe says:

    In actuality, the grad students should be winning the things these days. Influx of commercial cash into academia has so preoccupied “professors” with getting rich that they have little rime to talk to their studemts, let alone discover things with them.

  19. chiz says:

    Histone modifications, especially given the recent discovery that there are more of them than once thought (butylation and crotonylation at the very least).

    1. Me says:

      Or broader: is ‘epigenetics’ to broad a subject for an award? Or would it go to histones etc, and bromodomains and such like?

    2. MTK says:


      So someone like David Aliss then?

  20. Ex-London Chemist says:

    “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?”

    Apparently not…..

    1. Anon says:

      Hey, I discovered bagels and pretzels years before they did! Unfortunately I ate them instead of publishing them. 🙁

    2. Derek Lowe says:

      Yeah, I think I’m not the only surprised person this morning (!)

    3. spurious wavefunction says:


      That’s what you get for following Wavefunction.

    4. Kent G. Budge says:

      All I can figure is they’re waiting until next year on the gravitational waves, *just in case* the results are somehow wrong.

      If they don’t award the Nobel in physics for gravitational waves next year, something is seriously amiss on the committee.

  21. Dr. Manhatten says:

    Bagels, cinnamon buns and pretzels as a demo. Who knew they were exotic matter?

    That is just begging for a YouTube parody or an SNL skit.

  22. Hillary says:

    Tom Brady – chemistry Nobel prize; deflate gate & 4 superb owls & one very rich wife !!!

  23. yuri says:

    If George Church gasbags his way into a Nobel, I’ll shoot myself. The man is so self-inflated with irreproducible publications it almost comical.

    I think quantum computing is too early for a Nobel (and the early work was just someone discovering NMR spectra), they have to show it actually solves hard problems for anyone besides the NSA.

    I think the word Orthogonal will somehow make it into the Chem prize and it’s a cool word.

  24. Athinon says:

    Absolutely total synthesis! It’s so deserved over the last 10 years. Maybe the most innovative and challenging field, at least within the field of chemistry

    1. riaz says:

      It better be recognized as a field for sake of the field itself… is a very demanding field, and produced a lot of benefits directly or indirectly, and continues to do so….
      Call me KCN’s fan or Phil’s friend……these people have dedicated their energy and efforts…I do not see anything wrong when scotch tape (graphene peeling) and burgers analogy (topology) can win Nobel prizes in Physics. It is no joke to come up with idea/logic to make a compound, recruit hands and brains that can forge to make it, and be able to do something with the compounds and knowledge….

  25. Dingo says:

    I hope it’s Sharpless just for the sake of watching another one of his Nobel Prize interviews. The first one with him, Noyori and Knowles was priceless.

  26. artkqtarks says:

    You guys probably won’t like this, but how about cryo-EM? I’d say Richard Henderson, Joachim Frank, and Sjors Scheres.

    Or maybe Hartl and Horwich for protein chaperones since they didn’t get the Physiology/Medicine Prize?

    I’ve written my guesses here. I mentioned the possibility of the Physiology/Medicine Prize to Ohsumi for the autophagy work, although not as one of the top candidates. I guessed the Physics Prize wrong like everyone else.

  27. Another anon says:

    Total synthesis/pure organic chemistry won’t win a Nobel prize in the near future. It is not innovative anymore or at least not at the level of chemical biology, biochemistry, material sciences, etc. Sorry Phil, Nicolas, Evans, and others.

  28. Me says:


  29. Nick K says:

    Just seen on a Belgian news website that Feringa, Stoddart and Sauvage have been awarded the Chemistry prize.

  30. LJH says:

    Did anyone predict molecular machines as the subject of the 2016 Nobel prize? I completely forgot about Nanochemistry.

  31. Anon says:

    Surprising that we all forgot about nanotech, given that it’s probably the only area left in chemistry with any real potential.

  32. nano vision says:

    Yes – as the Google gets more involved, nanocars, powered by nano-batteries and guided by deep learning AI, will deliver nano-payloads of drugs to their nano-targets, while avoiding numerous nano-potholes. Stockholm must have recently watched a rerun of Fantastic Voyage (1966), while smoking hash:

    “A scientist is nearly assassinated. In order to save him, a submarine is shrunken to microscopic size and injected into his blood stream with a small crew. Problems arise almost as soon as they enter the bloodstream. “

    1. Yup says:

      I agree. Most of the nanotech work has struck me as (sometimes) technically impressive, but more cute than significant. OTOH, I’m (mostly) a biologist, so my priorities are different.

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