Unity and diversity at Lindau

In the last post I described how chemistry more than many other sciences is a land of diversity. This diversity becomes especially apparent when we size up the list of Nobel Laureates who will gather at Lindau this year, especially in terms of their work which spans the fields of chemistry, physics, biology and medicine.

The first thing that makes this diversity clear is the fact that some of the scientists here have not even won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. A prominent example is the duo of Serge Heroche and David Wineland who got the physics prize last year for developing ingenious methods to trap and play with single atoms and ions. Yet their methods are relevant to the general study of atoms and molecules. A similar example comes from Steven Chu, former US Secretary of Energy who also developed methods for taming unruly atoms, this time by cooling them using lasers.

On the other hand, Walter Kohn and his fellow prize winner (the late John Pople) who did get the chemistry prize provide a model example of the interdisciplinary nature of chemistry. As a physicist who studied under another famous Nobel Laureate, Julian Schwinger, Kohn shared the prize for developing widely used methods to calculate the details of molecular structure. And he shared the prize with Pople, who originally trained as a mathematician.

If the overlap between physics and chemistry is suggestive, that between chemistry and medicine is dead obvious. A look at the history of the medicine and chemistry Nobel Prizes demonstrates that you could have easily switched many of the prizes without anyone noticing. For instance Brian Kobilka, Aaron Ciechanover, Ada Yonath and Peter Agre are just four examples of laureates who were recognized for medically important discoveries and who could have easily been “hijacked” by the other side. In fact Agre and Ciechanover are not even formally trained in chemistry; both of them are doctors with MD degrees.

When I had dinner with them at Lindau in 2009, both of them joked about how they were now regarded as experts in chemistry, in spite of the fact that neither of them would probably do well in a formal chemistry class. And we also have an undisputed medical discovery here, the finding by Harald zur Hausen that the human papilloma virus causes herpes. It’s worth noting that the Lindau council still found in pertinent to include zur Hausen in this august cast of characters, possibly because the discovery of a virus (a collection of “chemicals” including proteins and nucleic acids) leads the way to the discovery of anti-viral drugs (a counterclass of “chemicals”).

Even within the group of prizewinners who could be regarded as bonafide chemists, the diversity of research is clear and is a testament to the astonishing reach of the “central science”. There are scientists who worked out the structure of biologically important molecules (Brian Kobilka, Robert Huber, Ada Yonath, Hartmut Michel), who invented new methods for efficiently making molecules (Akira Suzuki, Robert Grubbs), who studied the destruction of the ozone layer and its consequences for humanity (Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina), who coined a word for an entirely new way of practicing chemistry (Jean-Marie Lehn), who discovered new forms of carbon (Sir Harold Kroto) and who founded the genetic engineering revolution (Walter Gilbert).

Even the limited sampling of Nobel Laureates at Lindau provides an idea of the sweep of chemistry in accomplishing every important scientific and technological goal, from exploring the fundamental structure of matter to paving the way toward novel medical therapies. In addition the work of this year’s Lindau Laureates addresses issues across the intellectual spectrum, from pure investigations of atoms to findings of direct relevance to drug discovery and design. It would be hard to top the catholicity of discovery provided by this eclectic collection of scientists.

The diversity of discovery found among the Lindau Nobel Laureates gels well with my thoughts on chemical diversity and unity from the previous post. There are indeed a few unifiers in the list; for instance Rudolf Marcus can be said to have unified physics and photosynthesis, and Molina and Crutzen unified basic physical chemistry with politics. But by and large the men and women at Lindau this year are diversifiers. They came into this world wanting to know how and why. And they stand before us today, having left our world a little more interesting for us to explore.

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