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STOCKHOLM — Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel won this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry today for laying the foundation for the computer models used to understand and predict chemical processes.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said their research in the 1970s has helped scientists develop programs that unveil chemical processes such as the purification of exhaust fumes or the photosynthesis in green leaves.
That kind of knowledge makes it possible to optimize catalysts for cars, drugs and solar cells, the academy said.
“The work of Karplus, Levitt and Warshel is ground-breaking in that they managed to make Newton’s classical physics work side-by-side with the fundamentally different quantum physics,” the academy said. “Previously, chemists had to choose to use either/or.”
Karplus, a U.S. and Austrian citizen, is affiliated with the University of Strasbourg, France, and Harvard University. The academy said Levitt is a British, U.S., and Israeli citizen and a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Warshel is a U.S. and Israeli citizen affiliated with the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Warshel told a news conference in Stockholm by telephone that he was “extremely happy” to be awakened in the middle of the night in Los Angeles to find out he had won the prize, and looks forward to collecting the award in the Swedish capital in December.
“In short what we developed is a way which requires computers to look, to take the structure of the protein and then to eventually understand how exactly it does what it does,” Warshel said.
When scientists wanted to simulate complex chemical processes on computers they used to have to choose between software that was based on either classical Newtownian physics or quantum physics. But the academy said the three laureates developed computer models that “opened a gate between these two worlds.”
The strength of their methods is that they can be used to study all kinds of chemistry, it said.
“Scientists can optimize solar cells, catalysts in motor vehicles or even drugs, to take but a few examples,” the academy said.
Marinda Li Wu, president of the American Chemical Society, was enthusiastic about the award.
“I think it’s fabulous,” she said in a telephone interview. “They’re talking about the partnering of theoreticians with experimentalists, and how this has led to greater understanding.”
That is “bringing better understanding to problems that couldn’t be solved experimentally,” she said. “We’re starting as scientists to better understand things like how pharmaceutical drugs interact with proteins in our body to treat diseases. This is very, very exciting.”
Earlier this week, three Americans won the Nobel Prize in medicine for discoveries about how key substances are moved around within cells and the physics award went to British and Belgian scientists whose theories help explain how matter formed after the Big Bang.