2010 Nobels recognize potential of basic science to shape the world

Prizes go to IVF, graphene and ‘carbon chemistry at its best’

Scroll down to read wrap-up article about 2010 Nobel prizes in science or read individual articles by following links here.

Medical Nobel goes to developer of IVF

Robert Edwards receives prize for work that led to 4 million births | Read More

Physics Nobel goes to graphene

Two-dimensional carbon sheets discovered in 2004 | Read More

Basic tool for making organic molecules wins chemistry Nobel

Three researchers get prize for methods used to make drugs, electronics, plastics | Read More

Swedish academy awards

As Nobel season opens, one researcher looks back on a century of steadily increasing U.S. dominance | Read More

A technology that has brought 4 million babies into the world over the past three decades has been recognized with a Nobel Prize, along with two innovations that promise to revolutionize how those children live in the 21st century.

The 2010 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to Robert Edwards of the University of Cambridge in England for pioneering in vitro fertilization, a process that overcomes many causes of infertility by creating embryos outside the body and implanting them in a prospective mother’s uterus.

Edwards began research on IVF in the 1950s and later worked with gynecologist Patrick Steptoe. In the late 1960s Edwards was the first to try human egg removal and fertilization in vitro, a Latin term meaning “in glass.”

“By a brilliant combination of basic and applied medical research, Edwards overcame one technical hurdle after another in his persistence to discover a method that would help to alleviate infertility,” the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute stated in announcing the prize.

Ultimately, Edwards’ efforts gave rise to both a medical breakthrough and a now-outdated term — test-tube baby. The first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born July 25, 1978.

One winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics, Konstantin Novoselov, was little more than a toddler at the time. Now 36, he and Andre Geim, both of the University of Manchester in England, published their Nobel-winning discovery just six years ago in Science (SN: 10/23/04, p. 259). Since then almost 50,000 research papers have been published on graphene, the material the pair isolated from graphite using ordinary adhesive tape.

Graphene is made of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern, forming a single layer so thin that it’s nearly see-through. For such a humble material, graphene displays some remarkable properties: It conducts electrons with extremely low resistance, can conduct heat 10 times better than copper and exhibits strange quantum effects. Graphene is also flexible and stronger than steel. The substance could form the basis for new kinds of electronics, transparent displays, efficient solar panels or lightweight plastic composite materials for use in aerospace and other applications.

“When you couple it with all of the applications, that’s what whips physicists into a frenzy,” says Joseph Stroscio of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Gaithersburg, Md., campus. “It’s an amazing little material.”

The winners of the chemistry prize developed ways to use another amazing material, the precious metal palladium, as a catalyst to build large molecules out of carbon atoms. The techniques the trio developed are already used in producing thin-screen displays and a host of drugs, including antibiotics, chemotherapy agents and the anti-inflammatory naproxen. More applications are bound to come as chemists continue to refine the technique, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in naming the winners: Richard Heck, who retired in 1989 from the University of Delaware in Newark; Ei-ichi Negishi of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.; and Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.

All three figured out ways to make chemical reactions go by using palladium to disconnect and connect particular atoms with speed and efficiency. Known as palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling reactions, different versions of the process already bear the names of each Nobel winner and are familiar to organic chemistry students, as well as those in industry and academia. The research that led to the prizes began back in the 1950s and has become part of the standard toolkit of chemists.

“This is fundamental carbon chemistry at its best,” says Joseph Francisco, a Purdue chemist and president of the American Chemical Society.

This year’s Nobel Prizes are worth 10 million Swedish kronor each, or about $1.5 million. Geim and Novoselov will split their prize evenly, as will Heck, Negishi and Suzuki.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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