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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

And the Winner Is…

<on’t get a televised presentation, or a red carpet, but the Nobel Prizes still rock the research world. In keeping with my science theme, I’m going to ignore economy, peace, and literature, fine things though they are, and focus on the big winners in medicine, chemistry, and physics.

The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to Robert G. Edwards, the British biologist who pioneered in-vitro fertilization. Our generation completely missed the debate surrounding this discovery—the first test tube baby was born in 1978, 10 years before me. She now has children of her own.

But when it was first developed, IV fertilization kicked off a huge brouhaha. There were the ethical objections—does creating life before sticking it into a womb send us hurling down the slippery slope towards tampering with human life gestation? There were the Vatican objections—IV fertilization seemed to be usurping G-d’s plan for human reproduction in favor of a sterile medical procedure.

Today, IV fertilization has settled into public acceptance so firmly that I’ve always taken it for granted. Perhaps that is why Edwards finally won a Nobel, for a procedure he developed decades ago. Decades ago, the world wasn’t ready to see one of the most prestigious prizes in science go to a procedure seen as subversive or even amoral.

Or maybe the gap between the discovery and its recognition was typical of Nobel Prizes. After all, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to another decades-old discovery, which had no ethical debate attached.
Richard Heck of the United States, Ei-ichi Negishi, who is Japanese-born but works in the U.S., and Akira Suzuki of Japan won the Nobel in Chemistry for their contributions to a technique for bonding carbon molecules together. This allows scientists to create large carbon molecules, for use in medical treatments and manufacturing from scratch. All of the winners, who are 75 years or older, did their award-winning work in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chemists who want to synthesize multiple-carbon molecules run into a problem: carbon atoms don’t like to bond together. But many useful, naturally occurring molecules would be impossible to synthesize without linking carbons. Almost a hundred years ago, a French chemist came up with an imperfect method to overcome carbon’s aversion to carbon: attach a magnesium atom to a carbon atom, which forces other electrons toward the carbon and makes it more amenable to bonding with a hated fellow carbon.

With contributions from the work of Japanese chemist Tsutomu Mizoro, Heck created a related, more reliable method, replacing the magnesium with palladium. Then Negishi stepped in, adding zinc to the process to allow a larger variety of carbon chains to be attached with palladium. Suzuki further refined the process by replacing zinc with boron.

By the 1990s, these techniques became very popular in chemical synthesis. Yet the Nobel didn’t go to the trio (Mizoro was not eligible because he died in 1980, and the Nobel is not awarded posthumously) until 2010! Apparently, a (long) wait between discovery and reward—or even between the realization of the discovery’s impact and its reward—is not unusual for Nobel Prizes.

In comparison, the Nobel Prize in Physics was a downright prompt recognition. It went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, Russian-born physicists working in England, for the creation and study of my favorite molecule, graphene. If you take a piece of graphite, the material found in your pencil, and peel off a layer that is only one atom thick, you get graphene, a sheet of carbon atoms in a hexagonal lattice pattern.

Graphene is essentially a two-dimensional molecule, which makes it light and flexible, but it’s also incredibly strong, and can conduct electricity and heat extremely well. Hopeful scientists are setting it up as the semiconductor of the future, imagining a world where it replaces the silicon in computer chips. Plus, it exhibits some weird electric properties that make physics nerd geek out—hence my abiding love for the stuff.

Geim and Novoselov first created graphene by using Scotch tape to peel a layers off of graphite, and then folded the tape over to peel a thinner layer off of the original layer, and then a thinner layer off of that one, until they had whittled their graphite’s thickness down to one atom. Until then, most physicists thought that nearly two-dimensional molecules would be too unstable to exist independently.

The first papers on graphene were published in 2004. Today, a quick Web of Knowledge search for “graphene” yields over 13,000 results, and a Google Scholar search turns up a whopping 50,000. It’s a molecule that has worked up both the worlds of academic research and industry, because of its weird behavior and its potential applications, which may be why it only waited 6 years for Nobel Prize recognition, as opposed to 40.

It seems incredible to me that some of these winners had to wait so long between the time when they made a science breakthrough, and the time that the Nobel Prize committee recognized them. But just think of how many scientific discoveries are made every year. Nobel Prizes aren’t like Oscars, limited to the year in which a breakthrough was made. The Nobel committee can draw from back years filled with cool science. Picking must be ridiculously difficult. So I’ll cut the Nobel Prizes some slack. After all, they gave my favorite molecule a boost, and I can’t criticize that.

-Sophie Bushwick is a Carletonian columnist.

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