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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Nobel Prize Week by Matt McGann '00

An exciting time for research, both noble and ignoble.

(Also see Bryan’s entry)

The first full week of October is always an exciting time to be around MIT, because it is Nobel Prize week. For me, this week is routinely characterized by setting my alarm to wake up super early to check the website and see if any MIT folks won.

I have to be honest: I was bummed yesterday when Prof. Alan Guth ’68 was again shut out for the Nobel in Physics; his work on the inflationary universe is widely seen as Nobel-caliber. So, coming off of that disappointment, I decided today to sleep in and not check on the Chemistry prize. Big mistake.

Today, Prof. Richard Schrock, along with researchers in France and at Caltech, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the inorganic chemistry principle of metathesis. What is that?

Organic substances contain the element carbon. Carbon atoms can form long chains and rings, bind other elements such as hydrogen and oxygen, form double bonds, etc. All life on Earth is based on these carbon compounds, but they can also be produced artificially through organic synthesis.

The word metathesis means ‘change-places’. In metathesis reactions, double bonds are broken and made between carbon atoms in ways that cause atom groups to change places. This happens with the assistance of special catalyst molecules. Metathesis can be compared to a dance in which the couples change partners.

Metathesis is used daily in the chemical industry, mainly in the development of pharmaceuticals and of advanced plastic materials. Thanks to the Laureates’ contributions, synthesis methods have been developed that are

  • more efficient (fewer reaction steps, fewer resources required, less wastage),
  • simpler to use (stable in air, at normal temperatures and pressures) and
  • environmentally friendlier (non-injurious solvents, less hazardous waste products).

This represents a great step forward for “green chemistry”, reducing potentially hazardous waste through smarter production. Metathesis is an example of how important basic science has been applied for the benefit of man, society and the environment.

Thanks to the Nobel website for the description; also check out the really cool Flash animation that helps to explain further.

You should also know, though, that Schrock isn’t some inaccessible professor. In fact, he usually teaches 5.03: Principles of Inorganic Chemistry, a typical sophomore-level Chemistry class. Not only that, but according to the MIT course evaluations, Schrock is considered one of the best teachers in the Chemistry department, routinely receiving very high ratings.

That Schrock is a good teacher wasn’t a huge surprise to me. As I often talk about, Prof. Wolfgang Ketterle (Nobel Laureate 2001) taught me freshman physics, and he was a great professor. He’s helping to teach the course again this term, and even has office hours to help students.

Nobel Prize week also means the coming of Ig Nobel Prize week, brought to you by the folks at the Annals of Improbable Research and hosted by Harvard and MIT. Ig Nobel prizes are awarded to, um, “interesting” scientific research. Last year prizes went for the following projects:

  • the scientific validity of the Five-Second Rule
  • The American Nudist Research Library
  • the invention of karaoke
  • the patenting of the combover
  • and lots of other interesting/ridiculous projects, including my favorite, the basketball video (take a look!).

Tonight is my penultimate Central Meeting of the year, in San Luis Obispo, CA. Should be a small and intimate meeting. Soon, look for further travel updates and a Questions Omnibus. Happy Nobel Week!

EDIT: MIT has announced a lecture by Prof. Schrock today at 4pm. From my years of experience at MIT during Nobel week, I recommend getting there very early. MIT has also posted Real Video streaming webcast of the MIT press conference. You can also watch the webcast of the Prize announcement.

20 responses to “Nobel Prize Week”

  1. Bryan says:

    I ran to 10-250 after my spanish class ended. Literally, I ran. Then, while slowing down I ran into someone while walking into the packed lecture hall. I kid you not, it was Professor Schrock. I almost fainted.

  2. Heh, a glorious Serendipity?

  3. Hi,anybody here?First time to this website.

    Really happy that a MIT prof. won the Nobel Prize.

    But It’s really off the topic:)

    I’m from Chinese mainland,HOW MANY UNDERGRADUATE STUDENTS DO YOU HAVE FROM CHINESE MAINLAND,just the average number in recent years?????


  4. Kristin says:

    Hi Matt,

    This is quite off topic, but regarding admissions… About how many people would you say apply to MIT mainly for the name? Thanks!

  5. Kristin says:

    Hi Matt,

    This is quite off topic, but regarding admissions… About how many people would you say apply to MIT mainly for the name? Thanks!

  6. Zack Yang says:


    “Not only that, but according to the MIT course evaluations, Schrock is considered one of the best teachers in the Chemistry department, routinely receiving very high ratings.”

    It’s good to see Nobel laureates who are also great professors. +1 for the MIT Chemistry Department!

  7. Shikhar says:

    Hannible->”Really happy that a MIT prof. won the Nobel Prize.”

    Well you can hope to get this happy almost every year.

    as usually the folks always come up with something revolutionary.


    Talking about Professor Ketterle..there was a link about the supercondensed matter on which he researched can you please give me the link to it if you have it.

  8. Saad Zaheer says:

    well, thats certainly great for everyone at MIT,

    I was so excited to hear the news of the prize, in fact that day was pretty exhausting for me as I had been busy with classes and UROP continously from 9 in the morning till 3 30 in the day, and was heading for a nap when I found Meder in the infinite and he took me to 10-250, where schrock was delivering his lecture…

    10-250 is the lecture hall where I, alongwith most of the freshman, have our 18.02 multivariable calculus lectures… and that day it was so full of people, just to see listen Schrock speak! I could even see people sitting on the floor and the steps, something quite unsual for 10-250.. it was really really inspiring. we were all so proud of being a part of MIT!

    The MIT school of science has been winning a Nobel Prize regularly for the last four years! Its incredible!!

  9. Jonathan says:

    Ok, here’s another admission question. If we took some SAT II’s and already sent them to MIT, and then today took some more and have those scores sent there, what do we put on the application? do we leave the field blank, or do we put in the earlier (and proably lower) scores that we know already?


  10. Saad Zaheer says:

    Hi everyone,

    I am sorry for this off topic post but I think its more important to get the message across,

    On Saturday, October 9, a massive earthquake hit the northern and central areas of pakistan, the worst in the country’s history and the 4th most devastating in the year 2005, killing above 25,000 (twenty five thousand thats expected to rise even more) and affecting more than 43,000 people overall. The country is in a state of terrible disaster and trauma and we need a lot of help from the whole world,

    The Pakistani Students association at MIT, PAKSMIT, is collecting donations and manage any sort of ways to help and trying to organize relief dinners etc,

    I wish we can all unite at this time of worry, when we have been struck by Tsunamis, Katrina, and now this earthquake!

  11. Rushil Goel says:

    I have a question regarding the MIT application. I have made a research project on a space settlement on the moon(that was used by my school’s team( I was a leader of that!) that reached the finals of the International Space Settlement Design Competition) – ( obviously an infintesimal of Prof. Schrock’s research!) I have condensed it to a 8-page report? Where can I add it in the MIT application? Can I add it in Section 13 of the MIT Application ?(where they ask you to tell about sth you created!) Can I send it online?

  12. SHABIN says:




    ~ ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) — The death toll from the massive South Asia earthquake soared above 42,000 as the first trickle of humanitarian aid began to flow into the region, authorities said.

    ~ Islamic Relief spokesman Waseem Yaqhoob told CNN he thought the death toll would reach “80,000, maybe more.”

    ~ In parts of northern Pakistan, India and the disputed region of Kashmir, the scene is one of utter devastation: entire villages destroyed, millions left homeless and survivors using anything they can to wade through mountains of rubble searching for survivors, food and clean water.

    ~ Even with many far-flung areas still not reached, the death toll has hit 41,000 in Pakistan alone, with another 1,239 dead in India and one reported death in Afghanistan, officials have said.

    ~ As many as 5 million people have been left homeless, living in the open air and freezing temperatures since the quake.

    ( ^^^ Copyright 2005 CNN. )

    It is time to act and give. Any short delay will only be reducing the marginal chances for those have survived to nil.

    So, hear and help to the call given by Saad Zaheer, before it is late.

    ~Saad Zaheer: “The Pakistani Students association at MIT, PAKSMIT, is collecting donations and manage any sort of ways to help and trying to organize relief dinners etc,

    I wish we can all unite at this time of worry, when we have been struck by Tsunamis, Katrina, and now this earthquake! “

    I wonder what Sangam (Indian Students Association at MIT) is doing in this regard. Their website says that they will be meditating and relaxing for the next few days.


    Oct 11, 2oo5.

  13. Laura says:

    I am anxiously awaiting the same delivery!

    Heehee thanks for the reminder, I forgot that was this week. Oh man, I am going to become remarkably less productive as soon as it comes in. This is bad news for my 18.01 pset. =)

  14. Hey Matt,

    An MIT prof NOT winning a Nobel outta make news. But why didn’t u mention the fact that an MIT student won it’s humourous counterpart the Ig Nobel? Gauri Nanda invented Clocky, “an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people DO get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday.” Plus, Tell Dr.Guth that a Nobel doesn’t matter in the eyes of his loyal fans such as your’s truly. The Nobel foundation never gives prizes to cosmologists for some reason. Wonder why?

    I do have some doubts regarding admissions but I’ll post that on the October Omnius or a later admissions oriented page. Ciao,


  15. The Government of India has pledged over $10 million to Pakistan in aid and relief for the earthquake, aid and relief teams have been sent and the Indian army is also allowing the use of their resources and bases for aid. The Indian govt has also declared Indian Kashmir as a visa-free zone, i.e. you are allowed to cross into PoK without a visa to provide aid and vice-versa. This is a time when we are taking tremendous steps to show our concern for pakistan and prove that all’s forgotten in view of humanity. Please do not say that we don’t care ‘coz we do.

  16. AG says:

    Hi Matt,

    I have a peculiar problem. I am a student from India. My family had filed for a Green Card almost a decade ago. It looks as though we would have our interview for th GC around Feb-March 2006. Unfortunately, we can lay our hands on the GC only if we enter the US territory, which is not possible till May because of my academic schedule. In case we have our interview before the AdComm makes decisions, and I notify you about the same, what ramifications can it have, viz. change of status, special case etc?

    In any case, I will send you the relevant documents with my application package.



  17. Mushal Noor says:

    People in Pakistan are devastated. The newspapers report the death toll at 75,000…over 5 million people have been left homeless.

    People are trying their best to send in relief supplies…but food, medicines, blankets and tents are now short, even in the city of Lahore, so it’s difficult to get the supplies and even more so to send them to the hardest hit areas where roads have crumbled away and landslides block the remaining roads.

    Its school children who have died in the greatest numbers…the roofs just caved in and they were buried alive…and after 4 days some are still alive in there…waiting for help. But if they get out, many of them will have no where to go, no one to go to, because there are very few who have survived.

    1100 students were sitting for an exam in a school somewhere near Balakot, the building collapsed and up till now, only 30 bodies have been recovered.

    Trapped children have been calling out to their parents for help for the past 3 days…now there are no more voices.

    Rescue work has been impeded by rainstorms which are forecasted to last the whole week. Temperatures have been reported to reach 0 degrees C…and people are out in the open.

    There are not enough graves, not enough tears, no more words.

    Sikandar Hayat, the Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir, said yesterday:

  18. Jake Parrott says:

    Hey, I worked for Dick Schrock at RSI ’95, and he was my undergraduate advisor. Very good explainer, both one-to-one and in class.

  19. Rossana says:

    This is for Kristin’s off-topic comment about Mainland China. I am an EC from Beijing. If you have any quesions regarding MIT or Mainland China, please feel free to direct them to me at [email protected]. I’d be happy to chat with you about them.