Nobel oracles lure guests to prophetic gathering – University of Copenhagen

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06 October 2015

Nobel oracles lure guests to prophetic gathering

Nobel Crystall Ball '15

The Nobel Prize in chemistry is one of the world’s best-kept secrets until the Nobel Committee in Stockholm reveals the year’s winner. Nevertheless, chemists at the University of Copenhagen donned their soothsayer robes for a festive gathering to predict this year’s Nobel winner. The event took place on October 1, the week before the actual Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner was announced.

Big audience numbering several High School visitors

The event, christened The Nobel Crystal Ball, is in its second year. Five researchers, selected from among the department’s seven sections, assumed the responsibility of presenting a chemist who they thought most worthy of the Nobel Prize. The prophesizing took place in the company of a large group of researchers, students and high school students affiliated with the Academy for Talented Youth (Akademiet for Talentfulde Unge). The event was held in a festive yet serious scientific atmosphere.

Feast for the brain

Besides being a party of sorts, the Nobel Crystal Ball’s intention was to present the incredibly wide scope embodied by the field of chemistry. The researchers showcased this to the nines. Indeed, nominees included everyone from those whose research dealt with the origins of life to those who had invented environmentally friendly solar cells.

Solar power from berry juice

First to take the floor was Associate Professor Thorsten Hansen from the Physical Chemistry section. He chose Michael Grätzel as his Nobel laureate for Grätzel’s invention of the “dye sensitized solar cell”, a type of solar cell based on organic dyes such as blackberry. Existing solar cells are based on the glass-like material silicon, which is why they are both expensive and fragile. The dream for organic solar cells is to produce cheap and flexible cells that can be fitted to every type of surface.. See Thorsten Hansens slides here:

Un-natural nature for faster drug-development

From the section for Chemical Biology and NanoBioScience, Professor Morten Meldahl selected Peter G. Schultz for “expanding the genetic code”. By developing amino acids that nature has never seen the likes of, Schultz has created a powerful tool to develop new drugs, as well as to investigate the body’s tiniest building blocks and processes. Besides making Schultz one of the most cited authors within his field, his work has also lead to 100 patents. See Morten Meldahls slides here:

Warm(ish) high pressure super conductors

The section for Inorganic Chemistry’s Professor Jesper Bendix nominated Russel J. Hemley and Mikhail I. Eremets for their work with “chemistry under high pressure”. By conducting chemical reactions under high pressure, the equivalent of an elephant balancing on a ballet shoe, the two were able to create superconductors that function at a tepid minus 70 degrees C. Cold yes, but it is the first time that a superconductor has been created that is able to operate at a temperature that can actually be found on earth. See Jesper Bendix' slides here:

Evolution of life from dead chemistry

From the section for Organic Chemistry, Associate Professor Michael Pittelkow chose John Sutherland for his work on “The chemical foundation of molecular biology (also known as life)”. Sutherland studied how the underlying systems within cells, such as RNA, DNA, amino acids and lipids, all may have been the product of the same chemical substances, and found their way to a simple process that explains the origin of life. See Michael Pittelkows slides here:

Environmentally friendly chemistry with soap bubbles

Associate Professor Martin Andersson of the NanoGeoScience section nominated Bruce Lipshutz for making it possible to conduct “organic synthesis in water at room temperature”. By using so-called ‘micelles’, small spherical structures created by soap among other things, Lipshutz was able to demonstrate how one could avoid the use of solvents in chemical synthesis. Because solvents can be hazardous to human health as well as to the environment, Andersson considers Lipshutz’ results as well warranting the Nobel. See Martin Anderssons slides here:

Teasing counter arguments from professors

Between presentations, the researchers were grilled and received friendly jabs at a high scientific level from five judges, each of whom has deep insight in the fields of chemistry. Professor Sine Larsen, Professor Ola Blixt and not least, Prorector and professor Thomas Bjørnholm, who had taken time out of his busy schedule to listen to his former chemistry colleagues’ fortune telling acumen.

Un-natural chemistry most convincing Nobelcandidate

Following the five presentations, the audience was asked to vote for the most plausible of predictions. With 46 out of 149 votes, the vote went to Peter G. Schultz for “expanding the genetic code”. For his nomination and Nobel Prize prediction, Meldal received honour, flowers and a bottle of champagne.

Real winners revealed one week later

The actual Nobel announcement was live streamed on October 7 at 11.30 in auditorium 3 at HC. Ørsteds Institute. And the winner was… none of the above. Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar, were awarded jointly for “mechanistic studies of DNA repair”..