Saturday, October 9, 2010

Chemistry Nobel Winners Are True Heroes

To round out my Nobel Prize commentary, I highlight the story of this years winners for Chemistry: Richard Heck, Ei-Ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki "for developing a key synthetic technique to make complex organic molecules used in medicine and electronics."

I can't explain what got into the water in Sweden this year, but handing out the prize for "develop[ing] a key synthetic technique for making complex organic molecules used in medicine, agriculture and electronics" was another stroke of right on.

Similar to the Physics Nobel, the researchers earned the award for investigating carbon bonds. As the LA Times story describes it

Among [Heck's] first feats was joining a short carbon chain to a ring of carbon atoms to produce styrene, the raw material of the now widely used plastic polystyrene.

A similar process is also used in the production of the anti-inflammatory drug naproxen, the asthma drug montelukast and the herbicide prosulfuron.


One of the most spectacular feats was the 1994 synthesis of a naturally occurring chemical called palytoxin, which was first isolated from a coral in Hawaii in 1971. Palytoxin contains 129 carbon atoms linked in a precise three-dimensional structure that chemists were able to reproduce using the Suzuki reaction.

What's most interesting about this type of research is how even relatively mundane things like this are still part of leading edge science. We've come a long way, but there is still much to be learned, highlighting the importance of the freedom required to let it continue.

And for anyone who gives all this a big, fat yawn, I'll try to demonstrate its value with a personal anecdote from just this morning.

I made steak last night on my stove top grill. This morning, I sprayed the cast-iron surface with fume-free Easy Off and let it sit, where it didn't stink up the kitchen one bit. Less than an hour later, I rinsed it off, wiped it a couple of times with a sponge (no scouring), and I was done. Safe, effortless, and quick.

Multiply that savings of time and effort by a billion people for fifty years worth of days and you have some idea of just how important even ordinary chemistry truly is.

Now consider this: how many politicians names do you know versus how many chemists'? Yeah, me neither.

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