Watch out U. of C.! Northwestern is gaining on you! Give the north siders a few years, and there’ll be purple shirts covered with the names of Nobel Prize winners, too!
Sir Fraser Stoddart ended the Wildcats’ long losing (or maybe just not-winning) streak this morning, when the Nobel committee awarded him the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work developing molecular machines. These are literally molecules that can be controlled and made to perform specific tasks when energy is applied: they are the world’s smallest machines. They’ve become essential to developing the field of molecular nanotechnology, which affects a number of fields, including information technology and health care. In 1997, the U.K.’s Sunday Times declared that Stoddart “is to nanotechnology what J.K. Rowling is to children’s literature,” which probably means that they both have lived in Edinburgh and they have changed the face of their respective fields, not that there are midnight release parties for Stoddart’s new inventions.
Stoddart shares the prize with Jean-Pierre Sauvage of the University of Strasbourg in France and Bernard L. Feringa of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. In a press conference at Northwestern this morning, Stoddart emphasized the importance of globalization in scientific research, which he fears may be impeded by the Brexit vote this past summer.
At the press conference, after announcing that he was unshowered and smelly and begging for clemency for violating university parking regulations, Stoddart estimated that he and his colleagues have been working on molecular machines for 35 years. In the early 80s, Sauvage developed a way to link two molecules through a mechanical rather than a chemical bond so the molecules could operate independently of each other. Ten years later, Stoddart invented a rotaxane, which the Nobel committee describes thus: “He threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle. Among his developments based on rotaxanes are a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.” Finally, Feringa developed molecular motors that, among other things, could move the rotaxanes back and forth along the axles. (He’s also invented a nano car.)
Stoddart has been a member of the Northwestern faculty since 2008; he was at the University of Birmingham in England when he developed the rotaxane. (He has also taught at the University of Sheffield, also in England, and at UCLA.) But he emphasized that scientific research is a continuum and that discoveries often develop in unexpected ways. “We do many things,” he said. “We feed off each other.” Currently, he said, he and his students, both current and former, are using molecular machines to develop new forms of drug delivery, ways of mining for gold without using cyanide, and skin creams.
Yes, Stoddart initially thought the early-morning call from the Nobel committee was a hoax until he detected that the voice on the other end of the line was speaking English with a Swedish accent. The first thing he did was call his daughters, both of whom are also chemists, one in Cambridge, England, the other in Kobe, Japan. After he pays his taxes on his prize money (“because I am not very smart,” he said pointedly, “the IRS will run off with a third of it”), he plans to give away the rest of it to his fellow scientists.
Stoddart is the sixth Northwestern faculty member to win a Nobel Prize and the second to win the prize for chemistry. University of Chicago faculty have won a combined 48 prizes. (These numbers don’t include graduates, attendees, or researchers.) But, as Stoddart noted today, science is a long game.