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3 Scientists Share 2013 Nobel Prize For Chemistry


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be shared by three scientists who took chemistry inside the world of computing. This powerful technology is now used to develop drugs and perform all sorts of vital tasks in chemistry. The three winners were all born overseas but collaborated in the United States and elsewhere in the 1970s, where they started their work.

Joining us to introduce the laureates and talk about their work, which is so advanced the rest of us could barely understand it, is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, good morning.


RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve. Yeah, this is a tough one. But it's fun and it is so fundamental to what's going on in chemistry.


HARRIS: It's worth spending a moment to understand it. But let's start with the guys who won.

INSKEEP: All right.

HARRIS: And first is Martin Karplus, who was born in Vienna, Austria in 1930.

INSKEEP: All right.

HARRIS: He came to the U.S. to get his Ph.D. and now he's a professor both at Harvard - where he's done a lot of his work - and at the University of Strasbourg in France. He shares the prize with Michael Levitt who was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1947, but he now has joint U.S. and British citizenship and he's at the Stanford University medical school.

And third, Arieh Warshel, who was born on a kibbutz in 1940 and is now a joint U.S.-Israeli citizen. And he is at the University of Southern California. So talk about international science, you can't get much more international than this.

INSKEEP: And another Nobel Prize for, in effect, a collaboration, a reminder that we're talking about things that are so complex it's hard to fit them in one brain, basically. What do they do?

HARRIS: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, what they did was - this story really goes back to the early 1970s. Martin Karplus was working at Harvard and he and his group were trying to work in the sort of the spooky world of quantum mechanics. Now if you have - want to understand chemistry, you can have those ball and stick models which is kind of a classical way of looking chemistry, or you can do the fancy math of quantum mechanics that sort of looks at how electrons float back and forth in ways that are really not intuitive but are mathematically...

INSKEEP: When we say chemistry in this case we're talking about substances at an atomic level.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: And how they interact.

HARRIS: Yeah. So he was trying to understand molecules at this really basic physical atomic level and he could do some very basic simulations of that with his computer models but he couldn't really do big, big simulations. But interestingly, Arieh Warshel, who was working in Israel getting his Ph.D., was working with Michael Levitt, actually, and the two of them were working on computer simulations that were more like the familiar ball and stick model of molecules. They were able to do much bigger simulations of chemistry.

INSKEEP: Oh, you mean those drawings that you see in classrooms that model...

HARRIS: The drawings or even the, sort of the Tinker Toy kinds of models...


HARRIS: ...that chemists often use. So at any rate, so that allowed them to solve much bigger problems but they couldn't get the detail that you could get by doing the quantum mechanics. So at any rate, Warshel shows up in Karplus' lab at Harvard and they realized there might be a way to pull these two approaches together, kind of the chocolate and peanut butter combination, if you will.

And they actually were able to say, let's do a model that includes quantum mechanics and these more sort of standard ball-and-stick kinds of models. And lo and behold, they figured out a way to bring those two very different methods together to provide incredibly powerful computer models of molecules.

INSKEEP: OK. So I'm imagining this like a zoom lens on a camera. They want to get in finer and finer and finer resolution on what they're trying to understand. They did what they did. So what are their discoveries good for?

HARRIS: Well, all sorts of things because these days these models are used everywhere. For drug development, you take a computer model. Instead of having to do a million chemical experiments in a lab, you can create one of these computer models of an enzyme if you want to have a drug that's working against - working to change the enzyme. And you can sort of figure out how things will fit together on this.

And so it's for - you could do that for that, for catalysts, like the catalyst inside your automobile that cleans the exhaust, understanding how that works. Just, you know, it's endless. Anything that you can do in chemistry is done with computers these days.

INSKEEP: From medicine to mechanics. Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: With the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.