Nobel prizes awarded for physics, chemistry and medicine

The 2013 Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry and medicine were awarded last week, with the world’s most prestigious research awards going to scientists from Belgium, Scotland, France and the United States. The economics Nobel will be awarded next week.

The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to professors François Englert of the Université Libre de Bruxelles and Peter W Higgs of the University of Edinburgh.

Announcing the prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm said it had been awarded to the two physicists for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles.

“This recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, the Higgs boson, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider,” the academy’s Nobel committee said.

“This is a triumph for theoretical physics and the research field of elementary particle physics.”

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded jointly to Professor Martin Karplus of the Université de Strasbourg in France and Harvard University in the United States; Professor Michael Levitt of the Stanford University School of Medicine, and Professor Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, for the development of multi-scale models for complex chemical systems.

In the 1970s, the three chemists laid the foundation for the powerful programmes used to understand and predict chemical processes. Computer models mirroring real life have become crucial for most advances made in chemistry today.

Chemical reactions occur at lightning speed and in a fraction of a millisecond, electrons jump from one atomic nucleus to the other.

Classical chemistry has had a hard time keeping up; it is virtually impossible to experimentally map every little step in a chemical process. Aided by the methods now awarded with the Nobel Prize, the scientists let computers unveil chemical processes, such as a catalyst’s purification of exhaust fumes or the photosynthesis in green leaves.

The work of Karplus, Levitt and Warshel is ground-breaking in that they managed to make Newton’s classical physics work side-by-side with the fundamentally different quantum physics.

Previously, chemists had to choose to use either/or: the strength of classical physics was that calculations were simple and could be used to model really large molecules, but its weakness was that 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.

The Nobel prize in physiology or medicine was awarded jointly to professors James E Rothman of Yale University, Randy W Schekman of the University of California, Berkley, and Thomas C Südhof of Stanford University for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in human cells.

The committee that nominated the prize noted that each cell is a factory that produces and exports molecules. For instance, insulin is manufactured and released into the blood and chemical signals called neurotransmitters are sent from one nerve cell to another.

These molecules are transported around the cell in small packages called vesicles. The three Nobel Laureates discovered the molecular principles that govern how this cargo is delivered to the right place at the right time in the cell.

Randy Schekman discovered a set of genes that were required for vesicle traffic. James Rothman unravelled protein machinery that allows vesicles to fuse with their targets to permit transfer of cargo, while Thomas Südhof revealed how signals instruct vesicles to release their cargo with precision.