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U.S., Japanese Scientists Win Chemistry Nobel

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

N: Those are all things made possible by the work that earned three organic chemists this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Working independently, the trio came up with ways to link carbon atoms together so that complex organic molecules can be made in the lab. NPR's Joe Palca has our report.

JOE PALCA: Sometimes scientists know when they've been nominated for the Nobel Prize. H Negishi of Purdue University knew. And today he got the call.

H NEGISHI: This is, of course, major surprise but not a complete surprise.

PALCA: But lots of people get nominated each year, and there are always many worthy candidates. At a press conference at Purdue University this morning, Negishi described a conversation he had had just last night.

NEGISHI: I was telling my wife maybe one in hundred. One in hundred, that means there are 99 chance...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEGISHI: ...for this not coming.

PALCA: Negishi shares the prize with Richard Heck, who's now retired from the University of Delaware; and Akira Suzuki an emeritus professor at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.

The award was for their work on palladium catalyzed cross-couplings in organic synthesis. It's not easy work to describe. At no point during the 45-minute press conference did any one ask a question directly related to Negishi's Nobel work.

JOSEPH FRANCISCO: One of the things that chemistry is fundamentally about is how to make new molecules and how to make new materials.

PALCA: Joseph Francisco is a colleague of Negishi's at Purdue and the president of the American Chemical society. Basically, these three chemists used the metal palladium as a catalyst. Catalysts are a little like matchmakers: They bring atoms together that probably wouldn't get together on their own.

FRANCISCO: That actually makes it very easy to make new bonds and connect atoms and connect various groups to make new compounds.

PALCA: These new compounds have had a variety of applications, from medicine to electronics.

Winning the Nobel prize doesn't just validate a scientist's work. It turns them into something special.

NEGISHI: I can begin sensing its enormous impact. And at the same time, I have begun feeling my responsibility as well, which will be enormously increased.

PALCA: The Nobel Prize means H Negishi is now someone people will turn to for all sorts of answers, not just about how to make complex organic molecules.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.