Nobel prophesizing was a huge success – University of Copenhagen

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02 October 2014

Nobel prophesizing was a huge success

Chemistry party

Chemistry professors attempting to predict a Nobel Prize winner may come across as a boring affair. Nevertheless, more than a hundred students and staff from the Department of Chemistry showed up to the first ever “Nobel Crystal Ball” event. Hopefully, it becomes a tradition.

With brief and entertaining presentations, representatives from the department’s seven research sections presented arguments for their Nobel Prize in Chemistry favourites. A public vote among attendees decided the ultimate prediction.

The shaky art of prediction

Department Head Mikael Bols initiated the event by conceding that making a prediction of who would win this year’s Nobel Prize was a tough exercise. In 1997, he was employed at Aarhus University when Jens Christian Schou received the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the sodium-potassium pump. But, Bols didn’t know of Schou before he became the Nobel recipient. With this tidbit fresh in mind, the parade of predictions began.

World’s most cited chemist

First to hit the stage was Kasper Nørgaard from Nano Chemistry. He argued that molecular self-assembly deserved the Prize. Molecular self-assembly in nature allows DNA to replicate, for proteins to fold correctly and ensures that cell membranes have an inner and outer wall. The first chemist who proposed using molecular self-assembly in a synthetic context was George M. Whiteside, still the most cited chemist of all time. He is registered for 1508 scientific publications – 40 in Science, 12 in Nature. In all, he has been cited nearly 150,000 times!

Solar cells and biological electron transport

Jesper Bendix represented the inorganic section with a Nobel candidate well known to Copenhagen. Harry B. Gray is a member of CHEM’s Advisory Board and the argument for him to receive the prize was based on his contribution to understanding electron transport in biological systems. It is an important insight for understanding respiration, photosynthesis, poisoning of the liver and all types of energy reliant biological processes. But because he has demonstrated that electron transport in proteins is faster than in either water or in a vacuum, it may be the key for effectively harnessing solar energy. Besides being a Caltech prof, Gray is also the director of the solar energy firm CCI Solar, where he is also known as the ‘general of the solar army’.

Separation of mirror images with organic chemistry

Christian Marcus Pedersen came up to represent Organic Chemistry with an argument that asymmetric organocatalysis ought to take this year’s crown of laurels. Asymmetric catalysis is critical for being able to produce chemical substances with the right chirality, and thereby avoid pharmaceutical catastrophes like the 1960’s Thalidomide scandal. Until the end of the last century, chiral forms could only be separated from one another using metal catalysis. It is now well appreciated that metals can be poisonous and they are often rare, expensive and sensitive to humidity and oxidation. All of these problems could be eliminated if catalysis was possible using small organic molecules as opposed to metals. And that, is just what Benjamin List and David MacMillan demonstrated possible in respective 1999 and 2000 publications.

Ocean currents and climate change

Nano Geo Science’s Kim Dalby nominated a researcher that has mapped out one of humankind’s most immense challenges and also given it a name. In 1975, Wallace S. Broecker was the first to use the term “climate change” in a scientific publication. But Broecker was also the first to demonstrate the clear link between oceanic conditions and global warming in prehistoric climate change. He mapped the oceanic circulation of warm and cold waters and the oceans’ role in the global carbon cycle. With the extensive knowledge about the carbon cycle, he contributed significantly to research into CO2 capture and storage.

Careful X-ray research

Biophysical and Bioinorganic Chemistry’s Sine Larsen presented an instrument as much as she did the section’s nominee. Every third year since the turn of the millennium, the Nobel Prize has gone to structural conditions of complex biological systems and molecules. G-protein coupled receptors, ribosomes, eukaryotic transcription and cell membrane canals are all discoveries that were made possible by X-ray crystallography. But the technique does have weaknesses that make it difficult to get to the bottom of the dynamic changes characterizing biological systems. Tests must be crystallized and cooled to 100 Kelvin. Once there, there is not much movement left in them. Furthermore, X-rays damage organic tissues. The solution is termed “free-electron laser”, and owes much of its development and improvement to Henry N. Chapman.

First molecular electronic components

Kurt Mikkelsen represented Physical Chemistry with a chemist who, if he comes to win the prize, would turn the spotlight upon on the University of Copenhagen. Mark A. Ratner is an honorary doctor at the University of Copenhagen and a member of CHEM’s Advisory Board.

Rathner has contributed a breakthrough that will be pivotal in the sizing down of our electronic gadgetry in years ahead. The photo-lithographic techniques currently used for creating electronic circuitry almost can’t be shrunk more. But molecular electronics allow more circuitry to be fit into ever-smaller spaces. Ratner was the first to propose a piece of molecular electronic hardware. He published an article in 1974 with a theoretical description of a molecularly proportioned rectifier circuit. It was a work that was experimentally proven in 1993 and which kicked off the current explosion in the field of molecular electronics.

CHEM’s own Nobel material

Knud J. Jensen presented the Chemical Biology section’s proposed recipient, a potential prize winner who would shine an even brighter spotlight on UCPH. Mikkelsen nominated work in an area of biological chemistry in which the Department of Chemistry’s own Morten Meldal has made fundamental contributions, namely chemoselectivity in biomolecules. There is much to suggest that proteins and peptides will be used in the pharmaceuticals of the future. This may be actuated in modified versions of drugs or in new ones built from the ground up using synthetic methods. However, biological molecules are tricky to work with. They are large, complex and have an infinite number of places they may or may not choose to couple. Using copper-catalyzed alkyne Azyne coupling , one can get reactions that make it far easier to produce biological molecules with new properties. For this reaction, we have Morten Meldal, Karl Sharpless and Valery Fokin to thank. And that’s why they were nominated.

A clear victor, with a huge lead over the competition

After a short break, cake and drinks for all, the public voted via SMS and over the voting website, ‘Shakespeak’.

Three of the nominees stood out. Mark Ratner and Harry Gray received 15.7% and 23.5% of the vote respectively. But the clear victor was climate king Wally Broecker, with 33.3% of the public’s votes. That isn’t to say that the win didn’t reflect Kim Dalby’s superior presentation skills, or the public’s appreciation for the importance of Broecker’s discovery. Furthermore, this isn’t to say that Dalby’s prediction will even come true.

The official winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be announced on October 8 at 11:45. The announcement can be followed on the Nobel website at www.nobelprize.org.