The selection process for the Nobel prizes—this year’s to be announced starting October 7—is highly secretive, but that doesn’t stop the speculation. In that spirit, we surveyed dozens of scientists in the fields of physics, chemistry, and physiology, asking who they think could win this year’s Nobel Prize.
For the physics prize, almost all of our respondents predicted that it will honor the discovery of the Higgs boson, announced tentatively in July 2012 and with greater confidence in March 2013. But with thousands of scientists involved in the discovery, eight or more contributing to the origination of the theory, and the prize allowed to go to no more than three winners, how will the Nobel committee divvy up the laurels?
Most of the physicists responding to our poll felt that the prize would go to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, who independently invoked a new field—known today as the Higgs field—to explain why subatomic particles have mass. Their ideas were published within just weeks of each other. As Peter G. O. Freund, a theoretical physicist at the University of Chicago, wrote, “For the better part of the past half century the phenomenon discovered by Englert, Brout [Englert’s coauthor] and Higgs has been a crucial ingredient of the standard model of physics, and repeatedly verified indirectly along with this model. Now, after the phenomenon’s beautiful direct verification at the LHC, it is high time to honor its discoverers with the Nobel Prize.”
The chemists selected David A. Evans, a synthetic organic chemist at Harvard. Evans’s work focuses on both total synthesis and stereoselectivity. Total synthesis involves creating synthetic versions of compounds found in nature. The pharmaceutical industry relies on the field’s techniques heavily, as they allow researchers to mine the natural world for compounds that may prove beneficial as treatments, even if those compounds are incredibly rare. Evans is something of a total synthesis wizard—he and his lab have synthesized over 50 natural products throughout the years.
Stereoselectivity, Evans’s other speciality, is where one chemical reaction spits out different three-dimensional orientations of the same molecule, or stereoisomers. Specifically, Evans is interested in enantiomers, a specific class of stereoisomer that involves mirror images of the same molecule. Evans has been developing techniques that vary the levels of stereoselectivity in the hopes that someday we’ll be able to completely control the configuration of the final product. Like total synthesis, it’s important in the development and production of pharmaceuticals. The painkiller naproxen is a perfect example. One enantiomer relieves pain, while the other simply causes liver damage. Producing and selecting the right enantiomer is crucial.
For medicine and physiology, unfortunately our poll didn’t garner enough results to say anything conclusive, but one widely-watched Nobel prediction site, ScienceWatch, published by Thomson Reuters, has identified as possible winners A. Paul Alivisatos, Chad A. Mirkin, and Nadrian C. Seeman for their work on DNA nanotechnology, a promising and relatively new field that uses the unique properties of both DNA and nanoparticles to study biological processes and treat the human body. Mirkin’s research, for example, uses gold nanoparticles studded with nucleic acids to deliver drugs targeted at specific cells.
It’s important to keep in mind that these predictions are just that, predictions. We’ll have to wait until next week to see if any pan out. But in the meantime, you can voice your opinion in our public Nobel poll and see which scientists the crowd feels are this year’s frontrunners.