Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Nobel reflections

Early October saw the announcement of this year’s suite of Nobel Prize recipients and, as has been the case on quite a few occasions in recent years, there was some consternation when it came to the Chemistry prize. Many thoughts were expressed in the blogosphere and twittersphere and Carmen’s post over at C&ENtral Science has a few handy links that you can use as a starting point.

Now that the dust has settled somewhat, we’ve taken a look at the issue in our December editorial. The first paragraph is repeated below as a teaser:

Chemistry is often referred to as ‘the central science’ and its associations to all fields are clearly there to behold, but to some these links may stretch too far. Some purists have had their chemical noses put of joint with the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for ‘studies of the structure and function of the ribosome’ — apparently a topic that, for some, is not chemistry but biology. The arguments over the undeniable biological bent of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry are not new, but they seem to have reached a new level of intensity (or at least visibility) this year with various blogs and tweets doubting its current relevance to chemists. The award certainly leads to questions over the definition of chemistry and whether such ‘structural biology’ can indeed be classified as chemistry.

The rest of the article is available for free on our website to anyone with a account (and if you don’t have one, it’s easy to sign up for one).

There is also an ‘Editor’s Letter’ (an Editorial?) in the November issue of ACS Chemical Biology that considers the same topic, including whether we need new Nobel Prizes.


Stuart Cantrill (Chief Editor, Nature Chemistry)


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    Robert Bird said:

    I don’t think the Chemistry Nobel bothers me as much as it did when it was first given, because explanations have clarified for me what the chemistry is in their work. What still bothers me, though, is that while in general biology has both Medicine and Chemistry prizes, chemistry awards reside only in Chemistry. While the use of chemistry to elucidate ribosome structure is nice, it probably won’t be useful to any significant subset of chemists for their work. Meanwhile, tools that chemists use to do their work (or fundamental breakthroughs in chemistry) are less likely to be highlighted by Nobels, because there are fewer opportunities to do so. The asymmetry in award breadth bothers me.

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    Adrian said:

    Editorial perhaps a little lacking in passion, given how you guys reacted on twitter at the time!?

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    Andrew Scott said:

    As a PhD chemist I just cannot understand any griping about this award. The ribosome is the central chemical apparatus of life and understanding its chemical structure and function better will yield insights that range from the chemical origins of life to the chemical interventions of medicine. The ribosome is the most significant single chemical apparatus on the planet, I would suggest.

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    Anonymous said:

    Still angry?

    This year’s Nobel Prize for the Structure of the ribosome surely pissed a lot of people off. The debathe over whether the ribosome research counts as chemistry rages on, and the latest addition to the growing ranks of disgruntled chemists comes f…

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    Carmen said:

    Thanks for the link. I’m with Andrew on this one. For communicators of science, this year’s Chemistry Nobel should be an opportunity to talk about how chemistry is everywhere. Since I write for chemists, it’s important in a case like this one to make sure the chemistry behind the prize is front and center.

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    The Sceptical Chymist said:

    More Nobel reflections

    In December, we published an editorial called “Questioning chemistry” that discussed the definition of chemistry on the back of the recent awarding of the Nobel prize in chemistry for research into the “structure and function of the ribosome”. It was…