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3 U.S. professors win Nobel Prize in chemistry

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By The Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 7:30 p.m.

Professors from the University of Southern California, Stanford and Harvard were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for their pioneering use of computer modeling programs to help predict complex chemical reactions.

Their work, which began in the 1970s, has revolutionized chemistry research, in which scientists now work with computers as much as they do with test tubes.

“Chemical reactions occur at lightning speed,” read an announcement from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. “In a fraction of a millisecond, electrons jump from one atomic nucleus to the other. Classical chemistry has a hard time keeping up. Aided by the methods now awarded with the Nobel Prize in chemistry, scientists let computers unveil chemical processes.”

Arieh Warshel, 72, of USC; Michael Levitt, 66, of Stanford; and Martin Karplus, 83, of Harvard were recognized for devising computer programs that blended elements of classical chemistry and quantum physics in which atomic particles such as electrons behave in a dualistic and unintuitive manner.

Their work, according to the academy, has led to a deeper understanding of molecules essential for life, as well as those used in industrial and pharmaceutical processes.

Ironically, much of this change in chemical research has occurred outside the public eye, and the prize winners said it remains an uphill battle to convince even fellow scientists that computers are important chemistry tools.

Officials at the Pittsburgh Super Computing Center in Oakland were excited to hear that Karplus, who competed some of his research at the Pittsburgh facility in the late 1990s, was honored with the chemistry prize.

“Our folks are at the forefront of the field of modeling chemical structures in computers,” said Pittsburgh Super Computer Center spokesman Ken Chiacchia.

Karplus and a colleague tapped the Pittsburgh facility's super computers to run simulations on the P-21 protein, a protein associated with cell division that can mutate and trigger cancer. In a paper published in 1997, the pair explained how that by using computer modeling, they found that the protein mutates to become rigid and loses the ability to control cell division.

At a news conference, Warshel joked that many people believed that computers were best used to stream movies, “but not to understand.”

Warshel and the others said they hoped their recognition by the Nobel Committee would help to change this view.

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