Three American professors won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry today, for using computers to greatly expand the ability to forecast complex chemical processes. Martin Karplus of Harvard, Michael Levitt of Stanford, and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California, will share the $1.2 million prize, and the legendary honor of calling themselves Nobel Laureates.
Technically, the three men won for "the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems." That may not mean much to the non-scientifically inclined, but the dumbed down version is that they took something really hard and made it a lot easier. By creating some of the earliest and most powerful computer models in their field, their work has allowed chemists to run complex (and previously unworkable) calculations to simulate chemical reactions and predict how molecules and atoms will behave.
Here's the Nobel committee's announcement described their achievements:
The strength of classical physics was that calculations were simple and could be used to model really large molecules. Its weakness, it offered no way to simulate chemical reactions. For that purpose, chemists instead had to use quantum physics. But such calculations required enormous computing power and could therefore only be carried out for small molecules.
This year’s Nobel Laureates in chemistry took the best from both worlds and devised methods that use both classical and quantum physics. For instance, in simulations of how a drug couples to its target protein in the body, the computer performs quantum theoretical calculations on those atoms in the target protein that interact with the drug. The rest of the large protein is simulated using less demanding classical physics.
These advances in chemistry computing have saved researchers thousands of hours in costly trial-and-error experiments, allowing scientists to focus on new theories and concepts, instead of constant toiling in the lab. One committee member estimated that roughly 90 percent of experimentation can be avoided through computation.
While three of the winners are American citizens, none were born here, and all share dual citizenship another country. Karplus is Austrian, Warshel is Israeli, and Levitt is British, but was born in South Africa.
That's third Nobel Prize announcement this week, with two more big ones, Literature and Peace, to come on Thursday and Friday.
Monday, October 7
Physiology or Medicine: James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman, and Thomas C. Südhof
Tuesday, October 8
Physics: François Englert and Peter Higgs
Wednesday, October 9
Chemistry: Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel
Thursday, October 10
Literature: 1.00 p.m. CET (7:00 a.m. EDT)
Friday, October 11
Peace: 11:00 a.m. CET (7:00 a.m. EDT)
Monday, October 14
Economic Sciences: 1:00 p.m. CET at the earliest (7:00 a.m. EDT)