(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.