Chemists Talkin’ Chemistry

The 2007 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Part II

Posted by Paul on October 9th, 2007

Very early tomorrow morning, some lucky biologist will receive a call that he’s won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Just kidding—it will probably be a medical doctor or a physicist.

When Roger Kornberg won the Nobel last year for transcription crystallography, a stink erupted not over whether his work was worthy of recognition, but whether it was chemistry.  But that’s old news. The big story this week is this year’s Nobel, and I know that the person who still reads this blog daily despite the fact that it’s never updated is interested in hearing revised odds for tomorrow’s winner.

I’m kind of torn about my final pick. On one hand, I’m thinking about adopting the same approach I used pre-2005 when I guessed that metathesis would win every year. My new perennial guess would be GFP/fluorescent probes, because I’m still of the opinion that these guys absolutely deserve to win it. It’s less a question of “if” and more a question of “when”—GFP and similar probes are ubiquitous in research nowadays.

On the other hand, given the stink made in the media over biology getting shoe-horned into the chemistry prize last year, I think the Swedes might feel some pressure to pick a pure chemist this year (Palladium couplings, anyone?). As Excimer points out, the stars might be aligned for the more physical achievements this time around due to the composition of the Nobel committee. That, plus the fact that the last two prizes have been organic and biological, means that this year’s prize stands a good chance of having some element of physical flavor, which GFP has none of.

So, in a nutshell, just about anyone could win the Nobel this year. My pick is GFP, but I expect to be surprised.

Now, back to the odds. I’ve revised them a little bit from earlier this year, thanks to reader input and personal changes of heart. Remember that these numbers address the question of who will win the Prize, not who should win it. As always, feel free to share your criticism in the comments. Also, my judgment is very probably impaired due to the fact that I’ve been inhaling a large quantity of thiols over the past several months.  Forgive me.

The Field
(everything not listed below), 3-1
Molecular Studies of Gene Recognition, Ptashne, 15-1
Nuclear Hormone Signaling, Chambon/Evans/Jensen, 15-1
Fluorescent Probes/GFP, Tsien/Prasher/Shimomura, 15-1
Modern Surface Chemistry, Somorjai/Ertl/Whitesides/Nuzzo/+/–, 15-1
Transition-Metal-Catalyzed Cross-Couplings, Suzuki/Heck/Sonogashira/Tsuji/+/–, 17-1
Instrumentation/Techniques in Genomics, Venter/+, 19-1
Biological Membrane Vesicles, Rothman/Schekman/+, 19-1
Techniques in DNA Synthesis, Caruthers/Hood/+, 19-1
Molecular Structure of the Ribosome, Steitz/Moore/Yonath/+/–, 29-1
Telomeres & Telomerases, Blackburn/Greider/Szostak, 29-1
Application of Lasers to the Study of Chemical Reactions, Zare, 39-1
Bioinorganic Chemistry, Lippard/Holm/Gray/+/–, 39-1
Mechanistic Enzymology, Walsh/Knowles/Abeles, 49-1
Combinatorial Chemistry/DOS, Schreiber/+, 49-1
Pigments of Life, Battersby/+, 49-1
Global Warming, Thatcher/Gore, 99-1
Development of the Birth Control Pill, Djerassi, 99-1
Development of Chemical Biology, Schultz/Schreiber/+, 99-1
Molecular Modeling and Assorted Applications, Karplus/Houk/Schleyer/+/–, 99-1
Contributions to Organic Synthesis, Evans/Danishefsky/Nicolaou/Ley/Trost/Stork/Wender/Kishi/Overman/+/–, 149-1
Fluorocarbons, Dupont/Curran/–, 199-1
Dendrimers, Frechet/Tomalia/+, 199-1
Application of NMR to Organic Chemistry, Roberts, 199-1
Understanding of Organic Stereochemistry, Mislow, 199-1
Mechanical Bonds and Applications, Sauvage/Stoddart/+, 199-1
Self-Assembly Whitesides/Nuzzo/Stang/+/–, 199-1
Nobel Gas Reactivity, Bartlett/+, 199-1
Tissue Engineering, Langer/+, 199-1
Contributions to Bioorganic Chemistry, Breslow/Eschenmoser/+, 199-1
Molecular Recognition, Dervan/+, 399-1
Development of Nanotechnology, Lieber/Whitesides/Alivisatos/Seeman/+/–, 399-1
Astrochemistry, Oka, 399-1
Zeolites, Flanigan, 399-1
Molecular Machines, Stoddart/Tour/+/–, 499-1
Studies in the Origin of Life, Miller/Orgel/+/–, 99999-1

Past Awards & the “Pre-Nobels”
Past Nobel Prizes in Chemistry
Lasker Award for Basic Research
Wolf Prize in Chemistry
Welch Award in Chemistry
Kyoto Prize
Von Hippel Award
Science Magazine’s Breakthroughs of the Year

The History of GFP
History of Pd-Catalyzed Cross-Coupling Reactions
History of Telomeres and Telomerases
A Really Biased History of the Global Warming Issue
History of Noble Gas Compounds

Buzz in the Blogosphere
ChemBark: 2007-1
Derek Lowe, In the Pipeline: 2005, 2006, 2007
Sceptical Chymist: 2006
Curious Wavefunction: 2006, 2007
Endless Frontier: 2006-1, 2006-2, 2006-3
Carbon-Based Curiosities: 2007
The Chem Blog: 2007

60 Responses to “The 2007 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Part II”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    paul it is a good list. i just suggest moving ptashne way down the list. last year’s nobel was a clear signal that transcription is not going to get another nobel for a while.

    and under schreiber (chemical biology) you might want to consider adding schultz.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    your history of gfp link is broken. and i agree that gfp has got to get a prize. you know you have developed something important when the acronym becomes so common that people can slip it into conversation and nobody misses a beat.

  3. Paul Says:

    Thanks…fixed the link.

  4. Joe Says:

    Does your boss know you have this blog? I like Heck/Sonagashira/etc.

  5. excimer Says:

    Frankly, at this point the only thing I like about the Nobel prize is it gives me something to blog about, and everyone has their own opinion, regardless of its importance to scientific progress. It’s like the American Idol of chemistry. Nominations for who Simon Cowell is in this metaphor?

    I saw David Collum give a seminar yesterday. Give him a prize. Hell, give him two. That was the best seminar ever.

  6. Darksyde Says:

    Miller and urey are both dead. I’d also give high odds to the structure of the ribosome, perhaps split between cryo-em and crystallography, to round out the central dogma of biology given chemistry nobel prizes.

  7. Darksyde Says:

    Also, Kwolek/Dupont for Kevlar has about as much probablility as dupont/bartlett for fluorocarbons, especially with soldiers getting shot up in the middle east.

    Nobel prize for chemistry should set a good precedent and start awarding to organizations, like the peace prize.

  8. bohemian scientist » Blog Archive » nobel week Says:

    […] UPDATE: here’s a nice post about the chemistry prize (tip to ah): “Very early tomorrow morning, some lucky biologist will receive a call that he’s won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Just kidding—it will probably be a medical doctor or a physicist.” these icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

  9. Wavefunction Says:

    Are you going to be up this night too Paul? Thiol smells may help you do that.

  10. AndrewHires Says:

    Come on Roger!

    I’ve stayed up in lab 5 straight years now rooting for him. Maybe this is the year. If you look at the speakers from the Beyond Genes Nobel Symposium, they sure have picked off a few of those names over the last few years…

    Just don’t change my defense date if you win… :)

  11. Herman Blume Says:

    I want to take some late post action on Heck and Soddart. I guess I am hoping a chemist will win this year.


  12. One to set the record straight Says:

    Roger Tsien’s bachelor’s degree was in chemistry and physics. He synthesized organic small molecule sensors well before embarking on GFP. So it is incorrect to say that awarding the prize to him would be awarding the prize to another biologist. For those desiring something with “physical flavor,” he could also be considered a physicist, given his background as well as the fact that understanding of GFP requires concepts of physical chemistry. The chemistry committee would have no reason other than perhaps a grotesquely juvenile desire to be unpredictable to not award it to Tsien.

  13. anon Says:

    Congrats Paul, your prediction has been much better this time.

  14. TWYI Says:


  15. TWYI Says:

  16. AndrewHires Says:

    Well, it was one of your frontrunners, but no split!

  17. accurate Says:

  18. Paul Says:

    Wow. This prize is well deserved, but I’m shocked that Somorjai did not share in it.

  19. Wavefunction Says:

    good job predicting paul

  20. Wavefunction Says:

    but yeah, surprising that he did not share it with somorjai (considering that they shared the wolf)

  21. Shrug Says:

    Feels like 1999 all over again. Why does the committee periodically insist on neglecting fundamental work done by other scientists in favor of giving a solo prize? Sheesh.

  22. Cry for Somorjai Says:

    A solo prize is so wrong. Not sure what Somorjai did to get on their bad list.

  23. ElwoodCity Says:

    I don’t know Ertl. Why him solo over Whitesides and Nuzzo?

  24. ElwoodCity Says:

    I know it’s a lot of politics, but even politicians have to have a flimsy justification.

  25. not excimer Says:

    That’s pretty ridiculous.

  26. DZ Squared Says:

    Called it a few months ago!

  27. Wavefunction Says:

    Somorjai’s exclusion is even more puzzling for me given the fact that to my knowledge he was also not involved in any controversies and/or allegations (which could potentially kill one’s chance)

  28. Cry for Somorjai Says:

    I think the exclusion is a Berkeley thing

  29. barney Says:

    No one from a US institution has won yet this year.

  30. Yggdrasil Says:

    Mario Capecchi is at the University of Utah and Oliver Smithies is at UNC. No American-born scientists won anything this year, however.

  31. megafunnyman Says:

    Totally agree with all comments! Good job Ertl for putting surf sci back on the map. It is a bit hard to understand why Samorjai was excluded. Its my opinion that both were very worthy contributors.

  32. Anonymous Says:

    I’m shocked not to see Somoraji on the list. Why?

  33. Anonymous Says:

    Its a sad day in berkeley

  34. retread Says:

    It’s interesting to see the degree of contention about just which chemical achievements are most worthy of a Nobel. As Voltaire noted about religious sects, their very existence points to a lack of consensus.

    It is also interesting (to me at least) to contrast this with mathematics, in which towering achievements are agreed on by nearly everyone (Perelman and the Poincare conjecture, Wiles and Fermat’s last theorem). Not only that, but there is general agreement about the conceptual mountains remaining to be scaled (The Riemann hypothesis, etc. etc).

    I’m still plowing through Jones (but have stopped after Ch. 14 for the past 2 months due to my father’s illness) and am not as far along as I’d hoped to be, so I’d like to ask ‘are there such mountains in chemistry, generally agreed on by everyone’ without any idea whether an answer even exists.

  35. barney Says:

    I am a big dummy (see #29 & #30). Always double check your sources, kids. And don’t post when you should be writing an exam and there’s a baby in the office.

    Also, ditto Excimer (#5) on Dave Collum. I would know very little organic chemistry if it weren’t for his grad classes. Also, my wife got her Ph.D. with him and when I went to Cornell to give a seminar last spring, Coates finished my introduction by mentioning the new baby and Collum piped up with a, “Yeah–he knocked up my old grad student.” It was a priceless moment.

  36. barney Says:

    …and I just remembered that odds are good that Dave will read this. Oh well, it’s all true.

  37. Wavefunction Says:

    I can think of one mountain Retread; design a molecule or a supermolecule that has the effiiency and turnover of any reasonably good enzyme.

  38. Chuck Says:

    A great day for surface chemistry and catalysis, and for chemists winning the chemistry prize. But, it is very hard to understand why Gabor Somorjai was not a co-recepient…

  39. rnachen Says:


  40. eugene Says:

    Yes, Dave Collum lacks tact, but he lacks it very tactically. I bet it’s a cold and calculated lack of tact that is kept in check by his Machiavellian intellect. Nonetheless, it makes him quite a good speaker and I guarantee you won’t fall asleep at one of his seminars. Unless you’re narcoleptic.

    I don’t think he’ll get a nobel prize though. Sorry.

  41. Wavefunction Says:

    Dave Collum:

    PhD, Columbia University, 1980

    MPhil, Columbia University, 1980

    MA, Columbia University, 1978

    BS, Cornell University, 1977

    His record is incredible. I heard some of his classmates not surprisingly were still finishing up their PhD. when he came back as an assistant professor.

  42. Richie FH Kluasner Says:

    Why does anyone think Schreiber and Schultz will get a Nobel for anything they have done so far…besides their former students?

    Chemical Biology has been around for decades! Ever hear of the Journal of Biological Chemistry??? It’s a sexier name, but perhaps naming fields should qualify one for the Literature prize, let’s call it poetry.

    As for contributions both have pioneered the super research mega-group (again, not novel) and they spend many many millions more than 90% of groups with a result for dollar return below average. How about dividing their citations by either hoards of students or dollars gotten in dubious ways…..well, I cant complain with my Infinity Pharm stock in hand while tax dollars screen for drugs for yeast we can use the libraries to screen for big bucks, I mean drugs. Pete should have cut me a deal for GNF.

  43. Shocked Says:

    I think everybody within the surface science community was absolutely stunned this morning that Somorjai did not take a share of the prize. His work was at least as original, innovative, and foundational to the field. It is a rare thing for the Nobel Prize to be awarded for developing a field as a whole, and to award this prize to one man was pitiful. They must really NOT want to give Berkeley another Nobel Laureate.

  44. SomorjaiFan Says:

    That was what was shocking. If it had been given for a particular achievement of Ertl’s, then it would have been ok. But the Nobel citation made it clear that the Prize was honouring the field as much as any specific achievements. In such a case, Somorjai’s exclusion is inexcusable.

  45. somorjai student Says:

    haven’t talked to gabor about it, but all his grad students are shocked. we knew he didn’t win it when there weren’t any newsvans our front this morning, but we’re all surprised that it was in the field yet wasn’t shared with gabor.

    congratulations to ertl though. it’s nice to see the field get some recognition, although of course we somorjai students wish it was shared both for gabor’s sake and, on the selfish side, because we thought it would be really fun to experience the hurricane of a nobel prize getting awarded to our adviser. I mean, that has got to be some fun, right?

  46. Shrug Says:

    Since Paul is off trying to graduate (eventually), I’ll throw out an assertion that I think might be fun to discuss (I frankly believe this 100%):

    The Nobel Prize should completely lose its relevance as an award meant to recognize the most important achievements in the field of chemistry.

  47. Wavefunction Says:

    As Richard Feynman said, he just found the whole idea of someone sitting up there in the Nobel committee trying to decide whose work is “Nobel enough” very high-handed. I completely agree with him but infortunately, the prize is what we as a society have made it out to be, and we have to live with its trappings of conferring fame and otherwise. It’s a curse that’s here to stay…

  48. Ψ*Ψ Says:

    While that’s a good point, I’m still more interested in who gets a Nobel than who gets an Oscar.

    …I guess that just makes me a nerd.

  49. Wavefunction Says:

    I am even more interested in who gets the Darwin Awards. I second, in fact third, the point about the Oscars though.

  50. Surface Science Community Says:

    We like to thank both Ertl and Somorjai for their pioneering works in surface science. This solo prize sits on par with Gandhi not winning the Peace Prize and Gore not winning the 2000 elections.

  51. Anonymous Says:

    It is too bad that it did not match the sense and logic of a blogger eventually- what a nice feeling would it have been for everybody had it been shared by a few ( those who really contributed) than handing it to one. Good work, Paul.

  52. Anonymous Says:

    barney, you still have those big natty dreads?

    do you remember when someone pasted the outside of dave collum’s office windows with ‘art’?

  53. metallabenzeneer Says:

    Anybody hear? Jacobsen is moving to MIT.

  54. excimer Says:

    #52 pics plz. for both.

  55. Anonymous Says:

    Yes, it is true. I think it was determined some months ago.

  56. Nick Says:

    Why? I never quite understand these moves where a major player at a top school moves sideways to a school of equal stature. Its a pain in the butt to move labs, so its gotta be more than $$$, right? In the recent past we have had MacMillan from Caltech to Princeton (and Berkeley to Caltech), Peters from Caltech to MIT, and a few more than I am too knackered to think of right now. Whitesides, Myers, Evans, Holm, and Imperialli are some of the others who did this in the past. Maybe its a “grass is greener” thing. Besides, I thought Jacobsen was doing fine at CNN…..

  57. Klug Says:


    Thank God I wasn’t the only one who saw that resemblance.

  58. barney Says:

    Anon #52, I don’t remember the art on Dave’s office door, but I think I still have at least a few of the not-so-natty dreads in a zip-lock bag somewhere (unless the mice have gotten to them).

    And if there are photos, I would love to see them too–this was back when cameras still had film and laptops were at least a few inches thick.

  59. Wavefunction Says:

    “Jacobsen was doing fine at CNN…”

    I hope you are talking about Anderson Cooper who was separated from his brother Eric at birth. :P

  60. Darksyde Says:

    Yeah I always thought that Jacobsen looked like anderson cooper. And then I started worrying because I’ve got a mancrush on cooper.

    #47, I’ve been saying this for years! The video is here:

    However, I still get sucked into the excitement and celebrity of it all. My hypocrisy makes me sick.

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