Three more scientists are celebrating the ultimate career milestone today. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Martin Karplus of Harvard and the University of Strasbourg in France, Michael Levitt of Stanford, and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California on Wednesday “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”
“I was sleeping,” Warshel said of the moment he received the news via phone call at 2 a.m. Los Angeles time. “I was really, really happy.”
Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel will share the $1.2 million prize for their “groundbreaking” contribution to chemistry. So what did they discover, exactly? According to the Nobel Foundation:
Chemists used to create models of molecules using plastic balls and sticks. Today, the modeling is carried out in computers. In the 1970s, Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel laid the foundation for the powerful programs that are used to understand and predict chemical processes. Computer models mirroring real life have become crucial for most advances made in chemistry today.
In short, the computer programs Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel helped devise have made it possible for researchers to study complex chemical reactions like photosynthesis and combustion.
The three prizewinners are naturalized American citizens born in other countries: Karplus, 83, was born in Austria; Dr. Levitt, 66, was born in South Africa; and Warshel, 72, hails from Israel.
All in all, Americans have had a good run in the scientific Nobel Prizes lately. On Monday, three American scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. And last year, two Americans, Robert J. Lefkowitz of Duke University and Brian K. Kobilka of Stanford, jointly won the chemistry honor.
The next Nobel Prize announcements are some of the most highly anticipated: on Thursday, the Nobel Assembly will reveal the winner of the winner in the literature category. And on Friday, the Nobel Peace Prize—for which some say 16-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai is the front-runner—will be announced.
Listen to an interview with Arieh Warshel following the Nobel Prize in Chemistry announcement: