Science & Technology Almanac

By Lynn Lauerman | Go to book overview
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2001 Nobel Prizes


The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in two parts “for the development of catalytic asymmetric synthesis,” a method used to manufacture drugs. One award went jointly to William S.Knowles and Ryoji Noyori for their work on developing catalysts for a type of reaction called hydrogenation. The second award went to K. Barry Sharpless for developing catalysts for oxygenation. All three men developed catalysts that help create specific forms of molecules. Most molecules come in two forms, which are identical in structure except that they are mirror images of each other. The two forms can have very different properties and different effects on the body. For example, the drug L-dopa is used to ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The mirror form of L-dopa, called D-dopa, is a toxic substance. Attempts to synthesize L-dopa resulted in equal amounts of D-dopa, which had to be separated from the L-dopa in a costly and time-consuming process.

In the 1960s, Knowles, then a chemist with Monsanto Co., came up with a new technique to synthesize L-dopa. He created catalysts, substances that facilitate a specific chemical reaction that would create molecules of only one form. Eventually, he developed a method using his catalysts that produced 97.5 percent L-dopa and only 2.5 percent D-dopa. L-dopa went into commercial production and helped countless patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Noyori built upon Knowles’s work and developed a better catalyst in 1980. Noyori’s catalyst worked on a wider range of molecules than did Knowles’s, and it produced even higher yields of the desired form. His catalysts are used today to make the anti-inflammatory treatment naproxen.

Knowles and Noyori’s catalysts both caused hydrogenation, or the attachment of hydrogen atoms to a molecule. In 1980, Sharpless developed a form-sensitive catalyst that caused oxidation, the attachment of oxygen atoms to a molecule. Hydrogenation usually makes a molecule less reactive, whereas oxidation usually makes a molecule more reactive, which means that scientists can attach more atoms and molecules to the molecule they have just built and create a more complex and potentially more useful molecule. Sharpless’s techniques are used to create a class of heart drugs known as beta-blockers.


The Royal Swedish Academy awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics to Eric A.Cornell, Wolfgang Ketterle, and Carl E. Wieman. The three received the award for their creation of a new state of matter, the Bose-Einstein condensate, in 1995 and “for early fundamental studies of the properties of the condensates.”

Bose-Einstein condensate does not exist in nature. In the 1920s, its existence was predicted by famed physicist Albert Einstein and an Indian physicist named Satyendra Nath Bose. According to their theory, the condensate would occur only when a gas was cooled to an extremely low temperature. In such a situation, all the atoms would suddenly gather in the lowest possible energy state and begin behaving in a coordinated fashion according to the laws of quantum mechanics.

The laws of quantum mechanics apply to the behavior of subatomic particles. However, groups of atoms never behave according to the laws of quantum mechanics in nature because of the presence of heat, which is profoundly disruptive on an atomic level. When heat is removed, quantum forces become dominant on a large scale as well as on a subatomic one. In 1995, Cornell and Wieman were able to create the correct environment to make Bose-Einstein condensate. The two cooled a gas of rubidium atoms down to just about absolute zero. They took a photograph of a tiny speck of rubidium condensate, roughly 2000 atoms that had, as Einstein and Bose had predicted, gathered together.

But a tiny speck of rubidium seemed thin evidence that a Bose-Einstein condensate had been created after 70 years. Working independently of Cornell and Wieman, Ketterle created a Bose-Einstein condensate of sodium atoms later in 1995. He was able to make more condensate than Cornell and Wieman, so he began to examine the condensates behavior. If


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