Recently, I was going through the list of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, and I noticed how things have changed throughout the years. If, at the turn of the century, Nobel Prize laureates in Chemistry aspired to a better understanding of basic concepts, more recent prizes have been awarded by their broader approach and integration with other subjects.
Some of the initial prizes recognised basic research to identify new chemical elements, such as radium and polonium; while others were awarded for the definition of concepts that still today lay at the foundation of organic chemistry. This was the preparation for what followed during much of the 20th century, with research conducted in kinectics, thermodynamics, chemical structure, bonding, nuclear and analytical chemistry, justly establishing chemistry as one of the mainstream sciences. From here, it was easy to see that the way forward was to promote integration with other subjects, and these came tentatively in the form of physical chemistry and biochemistry, as well some recognition for industrial applications. Much has been achieved in the meantime, and the recently awarded 2012 Prize is a dramatic illustration of the way chemistry has progressed to become so vital to other disciplines.
Today’s chemistry has changed enormously since Alfred Nobel set up his Prizes for outstanding achievements and contributions. What once were clearly defined boundaries between subjects, have nowadays become blurred and vague concepts. However, far from its importance being diluted among other areas of research, chemistry has firmly claimed a central location, essential to many sciences, such as biology or physics. With our current knowledge, this overlap should not be surprising. After all, every life form, when analysed down to its most intricate details, is nothing more than a series of chemical reactions!
We’ve reached a point in our understanding of the world around us that we need to drop our artificial lines between subjects and look at the environment as a whole. This approach can potentially solve many current challenges, including limited natural resources, disease, malnutrition, climate change and others. It is expected that this trend towards a greater integration between disciplines will only increase in the future, most likely heavily relying on new technologies and computational chemistry. The aim of research is increasingly to move from studying individual molecules and chemicals to a broader analysis of interactive systems, such as chemical signalling in neural function or response to disease.
For full list of laureates in Chemistry since 1901 go to http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/.