Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Prof. Roald Hoffmann on Chemists' Angst over "their" Nobel Prize

In his excellent editorial in Angewandte Chemie -- What, Another Nobel Prize in Chemistry to a Nonchemist? -- Prof. Hoffmann, a Chemistry Nobel winner (1981) (whose website showcases his wide interests, offers several arguments to pacify "pure" chemists whose reaction to the 2011 Chemistry Nobel (which went to Prof. Dan Shechtman, a materials scientist) had a "an angry, resigned note to it: 'Once again, not a real chemist …'."

[Go ahead, click through to the editorial -- it's free!]

To someone like me who's outside the field, the arguments look eminently sensible. But the pure chemists who became grumpy about all those Nobels that got away? I suspect that they are not going to be convinced.

Here's an argument that points the finger at chemistry's forefathers:

The Nobel Committee has in its wisdom decided that biochemistry and molecular biology are chemistry. A significant part of our community has (in my opinion unwisely) disagreed with this. I would place the blame elsewhere —- for reasons buried in history and personalities, about a hundred years ago we allowed the biological to get away from chemistry, so to speak. That was a mistake, with molecular biology and the chemical turn in biology around the corner (well, 50 years after we lost biochemistry). Perhaps the situation is being repaired, in part, as evidenced by the renaming of some departments in the US as one or another variant of chemistry and chemical biology.

It would be really interesting to learn a bit more about "the reasons buried in history and personalities about a hundred years ago" that let "the biological ... get away from chemistry." Any pointers?

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Hat tip to: Gautam Menon (via e-mail), Ashutosh Jogalekar and Ross McKenzie.