Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Will a chemist ever win the Nobel Prize in Physics?

There is an interesting editorial by Roald Hoffmann, What, Another Nobel Prize in Chemistry to a Nonchemist? in the latest issue in Angewandte Chemie International. 

Hoffmann, thoughtfully argues that chemists should not be upset [some are] that the chemistry prize seems to be increasingly awarded to people from outside chemistry departments [esp. biochemistry and molecular biology, but also physics and materials science].

He also asks the interesting question: will a chemist ever win the Nobel Prize in physics? He argues that Bednorz and Muller who discovered superconductivity in cuprate compounds might be considered chemists. I don't buy that. Their education, employment, and publications were clearly in the physics.

I welcome possible answers to Hoffmann's question.
My answer might be: in principle, yes; but in practice no. I think this may be partly because of the arrogant reductionism of influential parts of the physics community.
Possible areas impacting physics and to which chemists make important contributions include synthesis of new materials with exotic ground states, single molecule electronics, single molecule spectroscopy, glasses, ....

I thank Seth Olsen for bringing the article to my attention.

1 comment:

  1. Ross, thanks for posting this article, as I myself had missed it in the literature. I agree that, while in principle it is quite possible a chemist might take a physics Nobel, in practice it's not likely to happen. However, I would choose not to look negatively upon the committee awarding the chemistry prize to those outside of a traditional chemistry discipline. I see this as a testament to the way the chemistry community as a whole has embraced, more readily maybe than other disciplines,the interdisciplinarity of our field. Working as a theoretical/computational chemist in a group with a strong materials focus, and working with many physicists, computer scientists, and engineers to solve the problem we face, I can readily see the importance and value of this. The chemistry community benefits a great deal by being inclusionary as opposed to an exclusionary.