In my editorial last week, I wrote about the controversy around the Nobel predictions, and I was wrong on several fronts. In my defense, I was also right—albeit in a small way. Let me explain. I admitted that I was “at a loss” when it came to predicting a winner but then expressed my preference by stating, “I’m a supporter of electron-transfer maestro Harry Gray from Caltech and molecular machinist Ben Feringa from the University of Groningen, so I would be very pleased if either of them got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but I don’t think it’ll happen.”
So I was wrong because it happened: One of those individuals actually won a share of the prize. On Oct. 5, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage of the University of Strasbourg, J. Fraser Stoddart of Northwestern University, and Ben Feringa of the University of Groningen “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.”
Sauvage synthesized catenanes, interlocked rings held together mechanically rather than via chemical bonds.
Stoddart created a new type of rotaxane in which an external stimulus controls the movement of a ring moiety along a dumbbell-shaped axle.
And finally, Feringa pioneered the field of molecular motors and built a motorized molecular car.
Collectively, they are the architects of the now-vibrant field of molecular machinery.
But going back to being wrong. I’m okay with that. In all honesty, I thought this field wouldn’t be Nobel territory because the utility of these systems is unproven. The science is fascinating: These compounds are incredibly versatile and can be powered by all kinds of stimuli, including light, heat, pH changes, and chemical reactions. They are also capable, for example, of moving loads that are several times their size and weight. So there are many potential applications in fields as diverse as energy storage or drug delivery, but none have been commercialized yet. Of course, applications will come, and kudos to the Nobel committee for having the vision to see beyond the present. The Nobel going to this area of chemistry will surely expedite its development.
I was also wrong when I said that “whoever wins, the controversy doesn’t stop. … We’ll have days of who-should-have-won-it and I-wish-the-chemistry-Nobel-went-to-a-real-chemist.” Not this time: The winners are chemists doing fundamental chemistry in a core field. Not only are Sauvage, Stoddart, and Feringa good chemists, but they are also excellent people. I have known Feringa for years, and he is a very humble and deserving man. Incidentally, I also know Stoddart, and less than a month ago, he contributed to a guest editorial about Brexit—a topic dear to his heart—for C&EN (Sept. 12, page 3). If you haven’t read it, please do; he doesn’t mince his words. And I don’t know Sauvage personally, but he happens to be one of my friend’s postdoc supervisors and the tears she shed when she heard he’d won are a testament to how well liked he is.
In any case, together they revolutionized this field. This is science that we have been dreaming about since the 1960s, and it is now a reality. The New York Times describes them as “pioneers in the second wave of nanotechnology,” and although that is absolutely right, I also think it shortchanges them. A press release from the Nobel committee gets closer in describing the significance and the incredible potential of their discoveries in claiming, “We are at the dawn of a new industrial revolution of the 21st century, and the future will show how molecular machinery can become an integral part of our lives.”
Richard Feynman’s vision of the future is a step closer thanks to Sauvage, Stoddart, and Feringa. Congratulations to the Nobel committee for such an excellent choice and to the three winners. You are an inspiration to chemists around the world.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.