Nobel Prize winner thought his idea was ‘stupid’ — until it worked

Two scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry Wednesday for finding an “ingenious” new way to build molecules that can be used to make everything from medicines to food flavourings.

Benjamin List of Germany and Scotland-born David WC MacMillan developed “asymmetric organocatalysis” — work that has already had a significant impact on pharmaceutical research.

The tool has also made chemistry “greener,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences judges said.

2021 chemistry laureates Benjamin List and David MacMillan have developed a new and ingenious tool for molecule building: organocatalysis. Its uses include research into new pharmaceuticals and it has also helped make chemistry greener. Image: Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (Johan Jarnestad/Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

“It’s already benefiting humankind greatly,” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel panel.

Making molecules — which requires linking individual atoms together in specific arrangement — is a difficult and slow task.

Until the beginning of the millennium, chemists had only two methods — or catalysts — to speed up the process.

“But in the year 2000, everything changed,” Professor Wittung-Stafshede said.

She said Professor List, of the Max Planck Institute, and Professor MacMillan, of Princeton University, independently reported that small organic molecules could be used to do the same job as big enzymes and metal catalysts in reactions that “are precise, cheap, fast and environmentally friendly.

“This new toolbox is used widely today, for example, in drug discovery and in fine chemicals production,” she said.

Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said the concept was “as simple as it is ingenious”.

“The fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” he said.

Speaking after the announcement, Professor List said the award was a “huge surprise”.

“I absolutely didn’t expect this,” the 53-year-old said, adding that he was on vacation in Amsterdam when the call from Sweden came in.

Professor List said he did not initially know that Professor MacMillan was working on the same subject and figured his hunch might just be a “stupid idea” — until it worked.

“I did feel that this could be something big,” he said.

It is common for several scientists who work in related fields to share the prize. Last year, the chemistry prize went to Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer A Doudna of the United States for developing a gene-editing tool that has revolutionised science by providing a way to alter DNA.

The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (About $1.57 million). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.

Over the coming days, prizes will also be awarded for outstanding work in the fields of literature, peace and economics.

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