Skip to content Skip to navigation

Three Chemists Win Nobel Prize For Taking Chemical Experiments Into ‘Cyberspace’

Three Chemists Win Nobel Prize For Taking Chemical Experiments Into ‘Cyberspace’

Laureates' research allows quantum mechanics and classical mechanics to 'shake hands.'

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 16:30

Sara Rennekamp, Contributing Editor

UPDATE: 3 p.m. EDT

UPDATE: 4:15 p.m. EDT

(Inside Science) -- At 5:45 a.m. EDT on the dot, Staffan Normark, the permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, strode into the Academy’s press room in Stockholm, Sweden, flanked by Chairman Sven Lidin and Professor Gunnar Karlstrom, both of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, to announce the winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Who are they?

This year’s award went to three scientists:

Professor Martin Karplus, an Austrian-born theoretical chemist of the University of Strasbourg in France and Harvard University.

Professor Michael Levitt, a South African-born biophysicist of Stanford University. 

Professor Arieh Warshel, an Israeli-born biochemist of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

All three are naturalized American citizens.

This is the 19th time in Nobel history that three scientists have shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The Nobel Prize amount for 2013 is set at Swedish kronor 8.0 million per full Nobel Prize. This means that each recipient will share about 1.24 million U.S. dollars. 

What did they do?

Karplus, Levitt and Warshel received the Nobel ‘for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems,’ according to the official Nobel citation.

Lidin detailed a kind of discord between classical and quantum physics in the world of chemistry. Historically, the two do not fully understand each other or even get along very well, Lidin suggested.

The research of the 2013 laureates, starting in the 1970s, began to merge the two fields, using the best of quantum mechanics to study the finer details of a chemical reaction, and classical mechanics to explain the rest.  

In other words, their research helps quantum mechanics and classical mechanics to ‘shake hands,’ as Lidin explained in the official press conference following the announcement.

You can see Lidin demonstrate this handshake at 5:25 in the official press conference. 


Karlstrom went on to exclaim, “This is the first time anybody ever merged the quantum and the classical world in chemistry!”

Lest anyone think that Nobel Prize press conferences are dull events, this year’s explanation of the laureates’ research included a graphic of Sir Isaac Newton throwing an apple at Schrödinger’s cat. This was to describe the relationship between quantum and classical mechanics before 2013’s laureates came along.

Image © The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

As you can see, Newton and Schrödinger’s cat eventually become friends and we have the 2013 Chemistry laureates to thank, according to Karlstrom. 

A well-deserved honor

Steven Adelman, a professor of chemistry at the Purdue University and acquaintance of both Karplus and Warshel from his graduate studies at Harvard said: "[Karplus] kind of created that field single-handedly; it's very nice to see that he's getting this great recognition because I think he really deserves it."

He went on to add that Warshel was also "very worthy."

UPDATE: 3 p.m. EDT

A computer named Golem

In the 1970s, Warshel and Levitt used a computer named Golem at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel to develop a ground-breaking computer program based on classical theories.

Armed with this classically-inspired model, Warshel joined Martin Karplus, who was already firmly rooted in the quantum world, at Harvard. Using the program built on Golem, the two began to develop a new kind of program that merged the classical and quantum calculations on different kinds of electrons based on what they needed. 

Golem is an anthropomorphic creature in Jewish folklore created entirely of inanimate matter. The world golem is referenced once in the Bible in Psalm 139 verse 16, where it is used to mean 'my unshaped form'.

In Modern Hebrew, golem means 'dumb' or 'helpless.'

Tracing the technology

In a somewhat technical but also personal narrative, Levitt traces the evolution of what he calls "The birth of computational structural biology," from Nature Structural Biology

Reactions to the news

At a press conference, USC's president C. L. Max Nikias, called Warshel, who has been a professor there for nearly four decades, a "shining star in our academic community." He also mentioned that Warshel can look forward to a permanent reserved parking space on the USC campus.

Warshel commented that he was in bed when he received the call from the Swiss Academy telling him he had won the prize. The first thing he did was check to see if the caller had a Swiss accent so he could be sure it was not a prank.

At a similar press conference at Stanford, Levitt said that he was having a good week even before receiving a call about the Nobel Prize. He said his team made progress on three very difficult problems, including figuring out how to program a computer to solve in 10 milliseconds a problem that required 2 hours of computer time a year ago.

Upon hearing the news, Levitt updated his Facebook page and called his mother in London.

This year, Levitt and his wife designed a two-dimensional wire sculpture for the 2013 Burning Man festival in Nevada. His wife Rina designed the piece and Levitt, of course, used a computer calculation to calculate the exact shape and dimensions the single long wire outline should assume. The piece was named "Unity."

Metaphor of the day

Sven Lidin, chair of the committee for the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry, explained the importance of both quantum physics and mechanical physics in a press interview shortly following the Nobel Prize announcements.

"Quantum physics will really provide us with all the answers we could possibly look for. Quantum physics has the wonderful ability to stop time and to expand space so that we can look at the tiniest detail of a system."

But classical physics, he explained, illuminates the full picture of a reaction including why a reaction happens.

"If you go in a make the measurements before and after, it's like seeing the actors before Hamlet and all the dead bodies after and then you wonder what happened in the middle, and actually there is some interesting action there. This is what theoretical chemistry provides us with: the whole drama," explained Lidin. 

Oakley, Lucy. Unfaded Pageant: Edwin Austin Abbey's Shakespearean Subjects. Columbia University, 1994 
Rights: Wikicomons

Read ISNS's full story of the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry here



Authorized news sources may reproduce our content. Find out more about how that works. © American Institute of Physics

Author Bio & Story Archive