2013 Nobels decades in the making

Prizes show that discovery takes inspiration plus perspiration

The 2013 Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine are all potent reminders that science, though studded with the occasional brilliant flash of insight, almost always takes years of persistent toil to move forward.

This year’s physics laureates, Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh and François Englert of the Université Libre de Bruxelles, proposed in 1964 that a field permeating the universe confers mass on particles that interact with it. That insight, also reached at about the same time by others who didn’t share the prize, became instrumental in developing the standard model, a theoretical framework that encompasses all known fundamental particles and all but one of its forces (gravity).

Though deep, Englert and Higgs’ insight wasn’t enough to merit a Nobel on its own. It took almost 50 years for experimental physicists — thousands of them — to develop a particle collider powerful enough and detectors sensitive enough to demonstrate the existence of the Higgs boson (SN: 7/28/12). (Higgs got his name on the particle because his 1964 paper predicted its existence as a consequence of the mass-giving field.)

There have been complaints that the Nobel committee too often favors those who find new particles over those who anticipate their discovery. But this time, the committee chose not to reward the persistent hard work of the experimenters in favor of the theorists who set them to their task.

“Every year is a new year,” says Lars Bergström, secretary of the Nobel physics committee. “Nominations that come in next year may well propose the experimentalists who actually made the discovery.”

The three chemistry winners earned their prize not so much for following up on a brilliant insight as for possessing a vision and making it real over decades of research. More than 40 years ago, Martin Karplus of the Université de Strasbourg and Harvard, Michael Levitt of Stanford and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California started developing mathematical methods and computer simulations to predict the interactions of individual molecules in chemical reactions. Their stroke of genius was to develop a way of marrying relatively simple and easily simulated classical physics with the quantum physics that describes the behavior of matter at an atomic scale. Rudimentary at first, their efforts have now been adopted widely by their colleagues to predict the outcomes of complex reactions that would once have required painstaking laboratory work.

“We save a lot of money, we save a lot of time and we save a lot of effort by doing the theoretical work first,” says Sven Lidin, chair of the Nobel chemistry committee.

In physiology or medicine, the winners spent years refining their understanding of how cells use bubble-like organelles called vesicles to package and deliver molecular cargo. In the 1970s, Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley and James Rothman of Yale gradually identified various components of the intracellular shipping system by breaking it in different ways and then observing the result. Later, Thomas Südhof of Stanford found a molecular clamp in brain cells that quickly releases chemical messages.

Rothman noted in a news conference that he had to endure five years of frustration before his work started producing results, a delay that might not be tolerated in today’s tight funding climate.

“It’s much more difficult for young scientists to get started today,” Rothman said. “In a relative sense, they get less money than we got.”

— Andrew Grant, Beth Mole, Gabriel Popkin, Meghan Rosen, Tina Hesman Saey and Nathan Seppa

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