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Thoughts on the Chemistry Nobel Prize

I wrote up this year’s Nobel Prize awards in chemistry yesterday, and there’s no arguing that they’re significant achievements worthy of a prize at this level. For many chemists, though, I think that this year’s award will join the 2015, 2012, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2004, 2003, 1997, and 1993 ones (and there are arguably even more) as years when molecular biology was redefined by the Nobel Committee as chemistry in order to recognize its achievements. I’ve written about many of these awards on this blog over the years, and have often made the case that (1) there’s more chemistry involved in them than one would think and (2) that chemists themselves need to broaden their own definitions of what their field encompasses. Both of those are true, but at this point, there’s also little doubt that the character of the chemistry prize has changed. And I speak as someone whose own career has, over the years, moved from pure organic synthesis to more chemical biology, so I hope I can’t be accused of sour grapes in this regard.

Those achievements in molecular biology are real and absolutely worth the recognition that the prize confers. But Alfred Nobel’s will recognizes no such area of science. The prizes do not even recognize an area of science called “biology”. Nobel’s will stipulated certain definite categories and made no provision for changes, and Swedish law is (I’m told) quite rigorous about this sort of thing, so we are stuck with what Alfred Nobel thought (in 1895) to be the most appropriate categories of scientific progress. Like every other prediction of that sort from the late 19th century, this one has inevitably gone off the rails, and the grinding noises are nowhere louder than at the border between chemistry and biology.

The prizes for science, for all their difficulties are still in better shape than the ones for Peace and for Literature. The former has mixed worthy recipients in with some wild misfires over the years, diluting its impact. The latter, which in its early years distinguished itself by failing to recognize Joyce, Tolstoy, and Proust, has in more recent times put itself in danger of becoming a not-very-amusing joke. (There isn’t even an award this year because the committee itself is in such disarray). That’s not to say that there haven’t been some odd awards in the sciences. Johannes Fibiger won in 1926 for supposedly showing the infectious nature of cancer in experiments with rats and cockroaches (and that one was another mess, with no actual award in 1926 and a catch-up retroactive award in 1927, which is what the literature prize is planning on for 2019). His experiments are, though, completely erroneous. Another famous one was the Moniz award in 1949 for developing the surgical technique of prefrontal lobotomy, which in retrospect does not look like as much of a benefit to mankind as it must have at the time. In the chemistry prize, one of the stranger awards (in restrospect) was Artturi Vitanen‘s 1945 prize for (largely) an improved method of storing cattle fodder. Beyond these, if we get into the various arguments about credit, both false positives and false negatives, there will be no end to it.

But any prize, administered in any fashion, will have its controversies. Criticizing the Nobels for these is actually besides the point, or at least besides mine at the moment. I think that the problem with the prizes is the inflexibility of Nobel’s will and the subsequent adherence to it. An email correspondent of mine favored the idea that anyone setting up a foundation in their will should have a review provision in it beginning a certain number of years after their death, with the administrators being authorized to make increasingly large changes as time went on (or to dissolve the thing altogether). I find some merit in that idea, but we certainly don’t have that with the Nobels, so that’s a separate problem.

But even the adherence to Nobel’s will has been inconsistent. The Literature prize is supposed to be for “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. What that means is open to debate, but there are numerous winners that it seems hard to apply to. The Economics prize is not, strictly speaking, a Nobel at all, but an add-on memorial prize started in 1969. It attracted criticism at the time, and still does. But instead of complaining about how the Economics prize is a violation of Nobel’s intent, why not violate it some more by starting “Nobel Memorial Prizes” in biology, in mathematics, in whatever areas we see fit? And allow ourselves to revisit those new categories over time?

This is not a new proposal. It will probably never happen. The existing prizes have too long a history by now, especially in the popular imagination. That’s the biggest difficulty with the science prizes, perhaps: the bulk of the population does not understand what any particular science Nobel is for, because they don’t have the background for it. For many of them, this may be the only time they ever hear about ubiquitination, phage display, palladium-catalyzed coupling, or the like. It’s good to have something that puts great achievements in these fields into the public eye once a year, but messing around with the awards risks that. The world could get along fine without hearing about these things every October, I fear, and if we add more prizes and rearrange things it might decide to do just that.

Back to chemistry, then. As it stands, I see no real solution to the “That prize isn’t chemistry!” problem. It’s a large enough field that molecular biology can be jammed into it without (much) shame, and that brings us to another difficult subject: there have been more world-impacting discoveries in that field over the last decades than there have been in chemistry. I know I’m going to get roasted in the comments for saying that – and let me make clear up front that I think that there have indeed been great discoveries in chemistry itself. But molecular biology has been having a tremendous run, and its implications for human health and the nature of life itself give it a very high profile.

Chemistry, as a science, has always been stuck in an awkward position when you try to explain its importance. Biology, as just mentioned, can often point to direct connections to medicine. All you have to do in the press release for any big prize in that area is mention “cure for cancer” or the like. Physics often alternates between being stupendously removed from everyday life and being right on top of it. By the latter, I mean things like the development of nuclear weapons, or of new energy sources. For the former, there are phrases like “the God particle” or “how the Universe is put together”. You can write a headline with this stuff.

What’s the magic phrase for chemistry? There isn’t one; there never is. We always find ourselves two or three layers of explanation away. The Haber-Bosch process makes ammonia, and people say “Big deal”, but then you have to explain that it actually feeds the world, because of nitrogen this and fertilizer that. Palladium-catalyzed coupling reactions form carbon-carbon bonds, and people say “So what”, and you have to explain that this is how many of the medicines that they’re taking get made these days. And some chemistry prizes are so many layers down in explanation that you just have to tell people to take your word for it, that the discovery of a new form of carbon or fivefold symmetric quasicrystals were a big deal, trust us. (Physics has some of these too, naturally, but next year there’s always the key to the universe coming back around again).

So what I’m saying is that as far as I can see, Chemistry as a field is just going to have to deal. We have little or no leverage in the Nobel space, and complaints about how the prizes need to get back to “real chemistry” are, I’m afraid, a waste of time. The Nobels are flawed, yes indeed, in several key ways. But that realization and a dollar will buy you a bag of potato chips.

64 comments on “Thoughts on the Chemistry Nobel Prize”

  1. BK says:

    Myself and two colleagues all agreed that the Nobel committee should create a separate category for chemical biology and the chemistry prize can go back to being for chemists.

    1. Nekekami says:

      They can’t, without setting up a completely new fund to draw Prize money from. Due to the language in the will and in the creation of the Foundation, under Swedish law, they can’t change the categories in any major way, much less setup a new category, and assign funds to that.

  2. Whiteside of the Moon says:

    In a dark tower somewhere at the Harvard campus, EJ drops his goblet of wine out of sheer shock

    1. Me says:

      Yes, surely he gave these clowns the ideas for phage display and directed evolution and should have shared the prize with them.

      1. luysii says:

        Whiteside of the Moon, Me —, Did you guys work for Corey and hate him?

  3. NC says:

    The idea of creating an extra prize for biology is definitely worth thinking about, although even if that had existed, these discoveries might still have been classified under chemistry depending on how you define the separate fields.

    In my opinion; what truly defines chemistry is not only the science behind bond strength, ligand binding, electron transfer energy, etc; but also the ability to then make a construct that shows this principle and find an application where this information is useful in. A large part of (traditional) chemistry is more like an engineering challenge: how to get to this molecule of interest in the most efficient and reproducible manner; with the science only becoming relevant after that point.

  4. bks says:

    Having banished first gods, and then all vitalism, biologists were left with nothing to hang over the threshold except “Cells Obey the Laws of Chemistry.” So please stop nitpicking the Nobel prizes and tell us exactly what those laws are! TIA.

  5. mallam says:

    As some departments of chemistry have been renamed “Chemistry and Chemical Biology” or simply “Chemical Biology”, and many investigators today include some type of biology related work in their research, I believe that traditional chemistry no longer should dominate recognition as the Nobel Prize. Yes, Goodenougth deserves it, as do others for lifetime work and specific discoveries. But what discovery has had and will have the most impact for the benefit of mankind, as stipulated by Alfred Nobel? That’s the key question. I welcome these awards as necessary and relevant in context of the evolution of the discipline.

  6. boohoo says:

    If Nobel knew how biology and chemistry would intertwine and influence each other, he’d have been an idiot not to see that both the chemistry and medicine prizes should share their bounty with those fields that connect them.
    Those who parrot “it’s not chemistry” are showing both their own ignorance and how chemistry (organic in particular) has siloed itself from the rest of scientific research.

    1. Daniel H says:

      To say organic chemistry has “siloed itself” is pretty daft. The majority of organic chemists recognise and grapple with the neighbouring sciences on a daily basis.

  7. AlloG says:

    I warned you Chemists! Dey taking our words now our Prizes Too! You notice chemical diversity is now gone as is me too (as in Drug).

    Nothing left.

    1. Miller time says:

      Wow I’m surprised to see you back after all your posts were deleted yesterday. Big news about your advisor

  8. anonymous says:

    The hierarchy of intellectual endeavors:
    Physics= applied Mathematics
    Chemistry= applied Physics
    Biology= applied Chemistry
    Medicine= applied Biology

    1. Jim Hartley says:

      Nice, because so true!

    2. loupgarous says:

      Iben Browning, formerly of Bell Aerospace, and the man whose fifteen minutes of fame came predicting the New Madrid, Missouri earthquake which never came, created something which ought to have assured him much more than fifteen minutes of fame.

      Browning’s “Anlage of Human Knowledge” is so obscure that you can’t find it on the Internet. What it is, is a latticework of every discipline of human knowledge, each in its own square on a three-dimensional diagram shaped like a Gothic church’s nave.

      The squares representing disciplines of knowledge in Browning’s Anlage of Human Knowledge are arranged (as he put it) as a “periodic table” of human knowledge.

      Iben Browning’s own bias as an engineer informed how he arranged his Anlage, so that medicine falls into the square “treatment bioengineering”. Studying biomedical engineering at Louisiana Tech, I was exposed to Browning’s ideas in my outside reading, in Browning and Nels Winkless’s “Robots on Your Doorstep”, a quirky yet insightful ordered collection of essays on how human cognition might best be modeled and effective robots built to do the work of man.

      While specific technologies discussed in the book are now outdated (the book was published in 1978), the strategies the authors discussed are still intriguing. It’s still a very good book for someone wishing to understand how neural nets work.

      And it has perhaps the only published diagram of Iben Browning’s Anlage of Human Knowledge, so the dwindling number of copies of the book are valuable far outside the literature of robotics. It would have been of immense use to Alfred Nobel in designing the Nobel Prizes.

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        I grew up not too far from Memphis, so I had plenty of friends and relatives who went through that earthquake prediction. Glad he was wrong!

        1. loupgarous says:

          Not Dr. Browning’s finest hour, by any means. Perhaps historians will discover the Anlage and give him due credit for it. Wikipedia won’t agree that it even is notable.

    3. Surfactrant says:

      You can go one more deeper…

      Mathematics= applied philosophy

      1. Fallen ape says:

        Physics because mathematics.
        Chemistry because physics.
        Biology because chemistry.
        Psychology and cognitive science because Biology.
        Philosophy because psychology and cognitive science.
        Mathematics because Philosophy.

        This monkey’s gone to heaven.

      2. anonymous says:

        That is too Platonic.
        We should avoid the great schism here.

    4. biochemist says:

      relevant xkcd:

  9. bacillus says:

    I’m an old microbiologist, and even I recognize that the “Haber” process was every bit as important at vaccines or antibiotics in terms of the good they’ve done mankind. There’s nothing else really that can compete with the likes of the eradication of smallpox, or the producition of cheap fertilizer. In other words, our glory days are likely behind us. This might also be the case for the Nobel’s in general. How many of the Nobels of the past 30 years ever became household names even within the broad disciplines for which they were awarded?

    1. fajensen says:

      How about The Finnish Baby-Box?

      All expecting mothers in Finland get issued a large cardboard box with baby-things in it, the baby then sleeps in the box. This was invented to reduce child mortality in the bad old days when babies would often share the bed with their too often drunk parents and get slept upon.

      Today it is a very popular tradition.

      And infant mortality in Finland is pretty much the lowest in the world.

      1. loupgarous says:

        Hopefully, expectant Finnish parents are not told about B.F. Skinner and his clinical experiments….

  10. tlp says:

    Look at 1902 and 1907 prizes – bio(organic)chemistry was always a vital part of chemistry. And early chemists aspired to mimic and beat nature from the very beginning. Sure, it’s the very accumulation of all the advances in physical, organic, analytical etc. chemistries that allows us to work with increasingly bigger molecules with increasing precision – and eventually to coerce with biology at its finest level. Now thanks to genetic engineering we can think of entire multiplayer organisms as plug-and-play ‘molecular machines’. So I don’t see why wouldn’t ionic channels count as chemistry while molecular machines would.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I think that the big, most famous and prestigious prizes should spotlight the achievement or breakthrough rather than the people. There are two aspects of that. (1) The awards currently go to individuals rather than the achievements themselves. Major advances rarely result from the efforts of “up to three” recipients. There are some notable exceptions. But many times, important contributors get snubbed (Douglas Prasher, et al.) (2) The public perception is that the up-to-three awardees, and they alone, are somehow gifted beyond all others; demi-gods to consult to solve all of the world’s problems.

    There are some Nobel exceptions: Peace Prizes have gone to The Red Cross, Medecins sans Frontieres, UNICEF, etc.. The science prizes could be modified to follow a similar model: recognize the achievement or breakthrough and then name the groups or people involved.

    Disclaimer: I have never won a Nobel Prize but I would gladly accept one and give an acceptance speech advocating the above position.

    1. anonymous says:

      I disagree.
      The Prize should be given to individuals who are the rebels and misfits and who think differently. The world moves forward because of a few unreasonable ones bending it to their wills. Reasonable team workers are mostly simpler followers.
      (disclaim: I am a follower).

    2. Nekekami says:

      The problem is that the will and thus the rules for the Foundation that they HAVE to adhere to, stipulate that it goes to the individual. The Foundation and the committes already skirt the law as it is, by handing out prices decades after the discovery, or for strictly theoretical discoveries with no obvious application.

      Want to change it? Either prove that the will and the creation of the foundation were in violation of Swedish law at the time(hint, they weren’t), or, convince some rich people to setup a new foundation for the awarding of prizes for scientific discoveries.

  12. Joe Q. says:

    I actually think that this year’s Chemistry Nobel is more chemistry-like than other recent awards (I’m looking at you, G-protein coupled receptors) in that it is, in the end, concerned with defining chemical structure and manipulating molecules.

  13. MrXYZ says:

    Obviously, thinking about who (and what) should win (or should not win) a Nobel prize is an amusing blood sport. But having a year every week where cool and useful science is celebrated is what makes the Nobels still relevant. And by that standard, 2018 is a great year.

  14. Plastics says:

    “I Have One Word For You: Plastics.”

  15. ng says:

    My book review on the “Politics Of Excellence”, an incredible book that gave me a much better understanding of science history and the prize:

  16. Anon says:

    One thing that is interesting about the prize for Greg Winter is that it is rewarding one of the pioneers of monoclonal antibodies, the therapeutic modality that has arguably displaced small molecules and organic chemists from their central position in drug discovery.

  17. Mad Chemist says:

    On the subject of Nobel Prize gaffs:
    There’s the time when the Nobel committee gave Enrico Fermi the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938 for discovering transuranic elements when he’d actually performed nuclear fission without realizing it. His “transuranics” were actually previously discovered rare earths.

    1. cthulhu says:

      Not really that big of a gaffe. According to sources such as Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (terrific book, as is its sequel about the H-bomb), as well as the Nobel citation itself, the supposed transuranics were only part of his award; slow neutron reactions in general were also cited.

    2. loupgarous says:

      What Fermi discovered were in some cases new isotopes of previously discovered rare earths – the products of uranium fission. While Fermi and his group were led astray by the expectation that the reactions they studied would be heavier elements than uranium (category error), they still added to the body of knowledge that would result in Hahn, Strassmann’s and Meitner’s discovery of nuclear fission.

  18. Much of Frances Arnold’s work has been towards creating enzymes that catalyze reactions no enzyme was known to catalyze. Creating new catalysts — what could be more chemistry than that?

    1. Make Chemistry Great Again? says:

      I totally agree! Anyone who thinks that Frances Arnold isn’t doing chemistry is an idiot. Just check out her last few Science papers.

      Derek, I think the main problem is that chemists need to acknowledge that biochemistry is a bona fide division of chemistry – the people who are complaining now probably think that Max Perutz & John Kendrew, Dorothy Hodgkin, and Berg/Gilbert/Sanger all ‘stole’ their Nobel Prize from ‘proper’ chemists!

      I’d much rather have the chemistry Nobel Prize going to this year’s crowd – Winter’s research actually made an impact on the ‘real world’ – than people like Stoddart, who have made no impact outside of their own small sub-fields or chemistry…

  19. cynical1 says:

    “Another famous one was the Moniz award in 1949 for developing the surgical technique of prefrontal lobotomy, which in retrospect does not look like as much of a benefit to mankind as it must have at the time.”

    From what I’ve seen, if it were employed more often than it would still provide invaluable benefit to mankind. Let’s start with politicians.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Gustaf Dalen, managing director of the AGA gas light company, won the 1912 Physics Prize for inventions related to automated gas fueled light houses and navigation buoys. He was seriously injured and blinded in an industrial accident. Unable to attend the ceremony, his brother accepted the Prize in his place. “The presentation speech praised the quality of sacrificing personal safety in scientific experimentation, a compliment that compared Dalén with Nobel himself.” (quote from wikipedia)

      “Things I won’t work with”? Large, high pressure acetylene tanks?

  20. MACALLAN says:

    Wow what a crock. So publishing accelerated serendipity makes you the laughing stock of the field but thoughtlessly doing it with enzymes somehow makes you a talented thought leader?

    Sure smells like a scientific hit job orchestrated by the Clintons to prop up women in stem…

    1. tim Rowledge says:

      Misogynate much?

      1. Boof to the roof! says:

        Think of your husbands and sons. What a world for them to grow up in. #ustoo

  21. The Lunatic says:

    The Peace Prize could really benefit from somebody actually enforcing Nobel’s will against the idiots handing it out.

    Not that Norman Borlaug, for example, didn’t deserve some sort of recognition, but he didn’t actually do any “work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.

    1. Isidore says:

      If the criterion for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize were strictly confined to considering “work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses” (the “and” suggest that all three should be weighed), probably two thirds of the prize recipients, many of whom, whether individuals or organizations, did indeed perform good work for the benefit of humanity, should not have received it.

      1. The Lunatic says:

        There’s a reason it isn’t called the “Nobel Beneficiary of Humanity Prize”.

    2. Anonymous says:

      Unintended Consequences: Borlaug was a pioneer of the Green Revolution of the 1950s+. He developed improved grains (w/o Mol Bio) and improved agricultural methods that were adopted throughout the world, in particular Mexico, Pakistan, and India. “He is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation.” (wikipedia) Food security is supposed to decrease the likelihood that you will wage war in order to acquire needed resources by force. But once the population has increased so vastly, they realize that there are other unmet needs (clean water; health care, shelter) and wants (iPhones, cars, H-bombs, Coca-Cola). So it’s back to the same or worsened tensions.

  22. loupgarous says:

    I’m not sure re-ordering the Nobel Prizes to more closely reflect modern scientific disciplines will solve one problem that crops up now and then – extended campaigns of scientific work aimed at garnering a Nobel Prize. “What, don’t you like excellence in science?” I can hear the reader say.

    I like excellence in science just fine. Excellent science is aimed at finding things out, not trying to win Nobel Prizes.

    Stanley Prusiner’s pursuit of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for proposing that “prions” cause what used to be called “slow encephalopathies” such as Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker Disease, kuru, scrapie, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and the related new variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease may have contracted the horizons of intellectual inquiry instead of expanding them.

    According to science journalist Gary Taubes’s 1986 article “The Name of the Game is Fame, But is it Science”, in Discover, Paul Brown, an early researcher with the National Institutes of Health submitted a paper to The New England Journal of Medicine on work on the group of diseases which include kuru and “mad cow disease”. Stanley Prusiner – who’d just coined the word “prion” to describe that cause, was one of the article’s peer reviewers. Prusiner sent NEJM a three-page critique of Brown’s work recommending they not publish it, then promptly submitted his own paper on the same material to NEJM. Prusiner had arguably been caught abusing the peer review process to buttress the edifice on which his “prion” hypothesis rested, at the expense of the The New England Journal of Medicine and its readers.

    Prusiner’s campaign to win a Nobel (which he did in 1997) wasn’t just dirty pool, it tended to foreclose intellectual debate on what causes the slow encephalopathies, and may be partly responsible for the waste of immense amounts of money and researcher time trying to validate the β-amyloid hypothesis in treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease (the idea being that β-amyloid plaques in brain tissue similar to those in the “prion diseases” cause Alzheimer’s Disease, which hasn’t proven out in clinical trials).

    If it’s true, instead, that a virus such as herpes simplex (which we know how to treat) causes Alzheimer’s Disease, Stanley Prusiner’s Nobel might have contributed to the false trail of the β-amyloid hypothesis, which didn’t just cost money and researchers’ time, but lives of patients who might have been successfully treated for a more conventional virus, and not futilely treated for the sequels to a prion infection.

    1. Imaging guy says:

      1979 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine was for the discoveries concerning “new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases”. Half the prize went to Baruch S. Blumberg for Hepatitis B discovery and half went to D. Carleton Gajdusek for his study on Kuru, Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Scrapie diseases (collectively termed spongioform encephalopathies). Even in that time they were wondering the kind of infectious material that caused these diseases. It was not like Prusiner reading someone else’s paper and got the idea. Here is what Nobel committee wrote, “the infectious agents causing spongioform encephalopathies display unique features. With regard to their resistance against physical and chemical treatments they clearly distinguish themselves from viruses as conventionally defined. Heating, treatment with ultraviolet light or alkylating agents which destroy the infectious property of conventional viruses allow the survival of the infectious agents causing Kuru and related diseases. Since it still remains to purify and chemically characterize the latter infectious agents the background to the high resistance of these agents remains unknown, but it is obvious that one is dealing with a completely new type of infectious agents. This is also obvious from the fact that no defence of the type encountered in connection with conventional virus infections can be demonstrated in patients with Kuru or Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease. There is no production of antibodies and no appearance of interferon has been identified”. Below is the link to press release from Nobel committee.

      1. loupgarous says:

        Carleton Gajudsek was the man who convinced the New England Journal of Medicine to publish Paul Brown’s paper on work with slow encephalopathies (Brown was in the same general group of NIH researchers as Joe Gibbs, who did the actual passage of causative agents which proved the transmissibility of kuru and Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease at Gajdusek’s instigation).

        It took the Nobelist who started work on the actual cause of the slow encephalopathies to undo what Stanley Prusiner did to obscure the story of how their mode of transmission was discovered.

        J. Carleton Gajudsek, his later troubles notwithstanding, was pivotal in halting the iatrogenic spread of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease through human-cadaver derived human growth hormone and allografts of dura mater, corneas and other nervous system tissue from cadavers. The man who discovered kuru was transmissible also worked tirelessly and successfully to halt its spread among the Fore people of New Guinea.

      2. loupgarous says:

        I see your point that “fast viruses” such as herpes simplex can’t be the sole cause of Alzheimer’s Disease, for the very good reason that viral antibodies aren’t present at the time the patient presents with symptoms. But there has been work indicating that transient viral inflammation of the brain can cause damage which leads to Alzheimer’s Disease. This doesn’t eliminate the possibility of other mechanisms which contribute toward susceptibility to AD.

    2. Russ says:

      The measure of a man’s greatness is how long his erroneous ideas retard progress in his field.

      Frank Bordwell, hears at Berkeley in1979

  23. Joseph says:

    You can add Eyring and Schlenk to the list of snubs. Schlenk contributed just as much to carbanion chemistry as Grignard, and arguably deserved a share of the 1912 Nobel. Eyring developed transition state theory and he never got recognized by the committee either.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Grignard (1871-1935) was a student of Barbier (1848-1922). Barbier synthesized organomagnesiums in 1899 and that laid the foundation for Grignard’s 1901 PhD thesis on the same topic. The Barbier Reaction (carbonyl + RX + Zn in THF/H2O) was an early example of green chem, before there was green chem (one-pot multi-step, no protecting groups, and water as solvent). So why didn’t Barbier get a piece of the 1912 Nobel?

      After decades of thousands of undergrads making Grignards in open test tubes using “wet” Et2O and using the warmth from their hands as a heat source, CJ Li published a more thorough study of aq Grignards in 2000 or so.

      Wikipedia implies that Schlenk’s (1879-1943) work on organolithiums wasn’t developed until 1917 and Schlenk Equilibrium of Grignards wasn’t until 1929. W/o lit access, I can’t look up his pre-1912 work. But, yes, Schlenk and others did a lot of important organometallic research.

      1. Organozincs Rule says:

        And before them all came Edward Frankland with discovery of organozincs. Not a well-known name outside the field I would guess.

  24. Hood Rat says:

    Yo Lowe, y u be deleting my msgs yo? I ain’t cussing or dissing bruh…

    1. JustDavidThings says:

      Wow you are SO cringey. Do you try this hard in real life too? Your coworkers must laugh behind your back all the time.

    2. Anonymous says:

      There have been several posts about “The Tragedy of the Commons” in Pipeline over the years. From wikipedia: “… a term used in social science to describe a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action.”

      Pipeline is an excellent free and open resource for scientists and non-scientists. (The current topic is about awards and prizes and Pipeline is certainly is worthy of some sort of recognition.) Part of Pipeline’s popularity and success is due to the rapid anonymous posting of helpful replies and comments. Please stop spoiling this resource and putting it at risk of moderation or closure.

    3. Swan floatie says:

      No wonder all the dunks employees laughed at you

    4. Derek Lowe says:

      Neither are you adding anything, though. You’re just making a not-that-funny joke, over and over, and it gets offensive after a while.

  25. me says:

    Seems ironic that people complain about this sort of thing, when we’re often told in our 1st year undergrad lectures something about ‘everything is chemistry because we study how things interact at their frontier.

  26. An Old Chemist says:

    Decades ago, X-ray crystallography was considered a domain of physics, but is now part of physics, chemistry and biology all. A few Nobel prizes have been given on the use of extensive X-ray crystallography in all these areas. Increasingly, the Chemistry departments all over the World have been calling themselves departments of chemical biology. The boundaries among various disciplines have been disappearing. For the pure traditional chemistry related areas, there are so many other prizes, instituted by ACS and other such organizations. Let the Nobel Prizes committee keep making their statement that we are in the 21st century and no longer in the 19th.

  27. Steve says:

    Biology is just chemistry. Chemistry is just physics. Physics is just math. Math is God.
    Of course, the concept of God is a product of biology so we’re back to the beginning again.

  28. Kaleberg says:

    Physicists had a similar complaint when they started handing out physics Nobels to astronomers. As Newton pointed out, I’m sure, they are two unrelated fields.

    There is one thing true in life and law. It’s really hard to do stuff when you are dead. Albert Barnes wanted to limit the number of visitors seeing his art collection to 1,200 a week and insisted that it be housed in a residential building that further limited access. That was overturned in 2004, and the collection is now on display to the general public downtown. Jane Stanford wanted to limit the number of female students at Stanford University to 500. That quota was relaxed in the 1930s and terminated in 1976.

    What happened? First of all, Barnes and Stanford were dead. Then the money started running out. Then the courts and trustees stepped in and ruled that dead people were dead and, being dead, were unlikely to show up in court to complain if only because dead people lack what lawyers call “standing”.

    The problem with expanding the Nobels is that too liberal an expansion would get us the Oscars with hundreds of prizes. Having only a handful of awards concentrates the prestige. I doubt they will ever add a new category, but I expect a certain amount of drift in the basic categories. After all, the awards were there to advance the arts and sciences, and that means changing them.

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