Carbon is the big star among the science Nobel Prizes this week. Sure, IVF is a big deal, too. But, today, I’m all about the element that ruled my life as an organic chemist. Carbon more than math is the universal common denominator of ‘O-chem. “As my undergraduate professor once quipped , “You just have to be able to count to four: four bonds to carbon.”
, from Wikimedia Commons”]But otherwise the two prizes aren’t all that similar. The physics prize for the discovery of graphene— sheets of carbon the thickness of a single atom– recognizes a discovery just a handful of years old. It’s superstrong, transparent, incredibly dense– fascinating properties that have scientists excited about what we might be able to do with it. But what has it done for the world lately? Not much, at least not yet. Some scientists think the award is premature.
The chemistry prize was awarded for classic organic synthesis: using palladium, a matchmaker metal with the remarkable ability to help chemists link together complicated patterns of carbon atoms. Although the enzymes between living cells are gifted at making these types of connections, stringing carbon atoms together in precise ways within a flask in a traditional chemistry lab is both art and science (and often an exercise in frustration).
But this is one elegant solution. The scientists discovered the reactions in the 1970s, but the chemistry that had come into its own by the time I started graduate school in the late 1990s. As a result, my chemist mind thought, “oh, really, they haven’t awarded a Nobel for this yet?” But there’s no question that this science has touched people all over the world. The pain reliever I took yesterday (Naproxen, the active compound in Aleve), cancer drugs, plastics, compounds in TVs and other displays and flexible screens all result from chemists using these techniques on an industrial scale.