Nobel chemistry prize goes to cyber chemists

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Martin Karplus Nobel Prize Winner
Harvard Professor of Chemistry, Martin Karplus, just moments after hearing the good news. He certainly seems quite pleased!

Chemists, who study the tiniest elements of life to create everything from medical cures to solar panels, better start taking computer programming classes!

Why? Well, you might normally imagine a chemistry lab filled with bubbling beakers, steaming vials of colorful liquids, and lots of twisting tubes connecting everything. However, what if I told you that the Nobel chemistry prize was just awarded to three chemists who used computer simulations for their experiments?

Yup! Three US scientists – Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel – are responsible for taking chemistry into that brave digital world of cyberspace.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who’s recently handed out Nobel prizes in medicine as well as in physics, says, “Today, the computer is just as important a tool for chemists as the test tube. Computer models mirroring real life have become crucial for most advances made in chemistry today.”

The reason computers can often be superior to traditional chemistry, is because a lot of chemical reactions happen at lightning speed. Try catching a glimpse of such speedy atoms bouncing around, and you’ll quickly be reaching for the nearest keyboard! Computers can not only calculate complicated equations instantly, they can save time, energy, and costly materials by just simulating the chemical reactions.

“It has revolutionized chemistry,” says Kersti Hermansson, a chemistry professor at Uppsala University. “When you solve equations on the computer, you obtain information that is at such detail it is almost impossible to get it from any other method. You can really follow like a movie, in time and in space. This is fantastic detail… You can solve problems, determine why things happen – energy problems, corrosion, chemical reactions, materials, why the properties are how they are and how you could improve them to design better materials.”

So, why did Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel receive the Nobel prize? Because they’re the ones who basically came up with using computers to simulate chemical reactions back in the 1970s! Yah. You know, way back before there was the internet or awesome computers in every househ0ld. They’ve used cyber chemistry to show how the tiniest particles in existence make and break themselves, which might one day make it possible to simulate a complete living organism… at the most microscopic level.

Featured image courtesy of Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group. Image of Martin Karplus courtesy of Stephanie Mitchell and Harvard.