Seeing the Invisible World with the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

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Chemistry sits halfway between physics and biology; it’s the middle child in the scientific family, as dependable as it is overshadowed. On Monday, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three researchers who helped elucidate the mechanics of circadian rhythms, the gene-based clocks within our cells; on Tuesday, the physics prize honored the discovery, finally confirmed in 2016, of gravitational waves. By the time chemistry rolled around, on Wednesday, the siesta of weekdays, it felt in some ways like just another item on the list. For many people, the remaining store of Nobel anticipation had already shifted to the Peace Prize, which will be announced on Friday.

The fact that it’s chemistry doesn’t help—it’s fiddly and subvisible, architecture for microscopists. Occasionally, the Nobel committee recognizes an achievement with obvious appeal; last year, the chemistry prize went to a trio of scientists who built the first molecular-scale motors and machinery. More commonly, though, the prize recognizes developments that, although unquestionably essential, at first glance defy the English language—“for their work on chirally catalysed hydrogenation reactions,” in 2001; “for palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis,” in 2010. This year’s short list, according to Chemistry World, included fundamental work on C–H functionalization and the discovery of perovskites. One expects that sort of obscurity from physics, which is so otherworldly anyway. And whatever the medicine prize recognizes, well, it must be good for us. But chemistry—what exactly does chemistry do again?

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, announced this morning, recognizes the effort of three scientists to shed light on the matter, literally. In 1990, Richard Henderson, a molecular biologist at Cambridge University, managed to use an electron microscope, designed for the study of inert material, to visualize—in three dimensions and at atomic scale—the structure of a protein found in photosynthetic cells. The chemistry of life, once obscure, was now visible in astonishing detail. Joachim Frank, a biochemist at Columbia University, and Jacques Dubochet, of the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland, made crucial refinements to the method and widened its application. In the nineteen-seventies, Frank had begun work on a mathematical technique that eventually enabled the electron microscope to image not just single, neatly packed groups of proteins in a sample but an array of them scattered and oriented every which way.

One major problem remained—how to keep biological samples from drying out under the microscope, since freezing them introduced ice crystals, which disrupted the electron beam and ruined the images. Dubochet found a way to add water to the samples and freeze it so quickly that it formed a kind of liquid glass; this kept the molecules from collapsing without diffracting the electron beam. Together, the three laureates’ work constitutes cryo-electron microscopy, “which both simplifies and improves the imaging of biomolecules,” as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted in a press release, pushing “biochemistry into a new era.” Scientists can now stop biological molecules cold, peer inside, and visualize the inner workings with unprecedented clarity, an advance that is already helping pharmaceutical companies discover and develop new and better drugs. In an interview with i24, an Israeli news outlet, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Ada Yonath, described today’s award as the next step in “the resolution revolution.”

None of which is to say that, to earn its Nobels, chemistry must be flashy or otherwise appeal to the public imagination, at least not immediately. This year’s award “shows the value of patiently supporting basic science for decades,” Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the president of Britain’s Royal Society, told the Guardian—a point that my colleague Jerome Groopman made earlier this week with regard to the prize for medicine. Alfred Nobel, himself a chemist, created the prizes to foster basic research and world peace, in part as penance for inventing one of humankind’s most destructive chemical applications: dynamite.

Since 1901, when the first Nobel Prize was awarded, chemistry has evolved in every direction—atmospheric chemistry, colloidal chemistry, nuclear chemistry, organic chemistry, stereochemistry. It is the substance of the tactile world, the platform on which every other tangible science is built, and for that reason tends to recede into the background. Most people think about chemistry the way they do architecture, which is to say rarely, if at all. Were the Nobel science prizes a home-renovation show, medicine would be the party at the end, physics would be the electricity miraculously entering from the street, and chemistry would be the drywall.

Slowly, and thanks in no small part to developments like those recognized today, that perception is changing. The visualization of chemistry and of life’s molecules—the shape of the needle that the Salmonella bacterium uses to attack cells, the surface of the Zika virus—has achieved a degree of splendor. Indeed, there is an entire educational Web site devoted to it, Envisioning Chemistry, which features more than two dozen stunning high-resolution films of chemical processes at work. We have lived in the Age of Chemistry from the start; only now are we beginning to see it and to grasp its fundamental lesson, that we are all made of the same gorgeous stuff.

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