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October 9, 2013 12:02 pm
The Nobel chemistry prize has gone to three naturalised American scientists for “taking experiments to cyberspace”.
The laureates – Martin Karplus now based at Strasbourg University in France and Harvard University in the US, Michael Levitt of Stanford University and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California – worked out how to model chemical reactions in computers.
Their research, started at Harvard in the 1970s, laid the foundations for the powerful programs used today to understand and predict chemical processes, in academia and in industry. For example pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies use computer modelling routinely to design drugs.
The breakthrough by the three laureates, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, was to make classical Newtonian physics work together with newer quantum physics in chemical computing. Both are important but the chemists who started to use computers to design experiments and compounds in the 1960s had to choose one or the other.
Classical physics is relatively simple and applicable to large molecules but it does not mimic the quantum processes that control real reactions. Quantum calculations required so much computing power that they could only be used for small molecules. The new laureates took the best from both worlds.
For instance, in simulating a drug targeting a protein in the body, the computer performs quantum calculations on those atoms in the target protein that interact with the drug. The rest of the large protein molecule is modelled with less demanding classical physics.
“Today the computer is just as important a tool for chemists as the test tube,” the Nobel citation said. “Simulations are so realistic that they predict the outcome of traditional experiments.”
The three men illustrate the enormous contributions made by scientists from outside the US to American research. Prof Karplus, born in Vienna, is a citizen of the US and Austria; Prof Levitt, born in South African is a British and American citizen; Prof Warshel, born in Israel, has US and Israeli nationality.
They each receive an equal share of the $1.2m prize.
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