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Two AAAS Fellows Among Nobel Prize Winners in Science

Fraser Stoddart, a AAAS fellow and member, was among three scientists to be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing miniaturized machines that hold the promise to revolutionize computers and energy through “new materials, sensors and energy storage systems,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced 5 October from Stockholm.

Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Dutch scientist Bernard “Ben” Feringa joined British-born Stoddart, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in being equally honored for leveraging the power of chemistry to miniaturize machines and introduce a “new dimension” of chemistry, the academy said. Feringa is an organic chemistry professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. 

The team’s work dates to 1983 when Sauvage, a professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg in France, successfully formed a chain from two “ring shaped-molecules” to create a “freer mechanical bond,” rather than the usual “strong convalent bonds.” The academy honored the team’s work for “the design and synthesis of molecular machines” able to produce movements that can be directed. 

“2016’s Nobel Laureates in chemistry have taken molecular systems out of equilibrium’s stalemate and into energy-filled states in which their movements can be controlled,” the academy said. “In terms of development, the molecular motor is at the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s, when scientists displayed various spinning cranks and wheels, unaware that they would lead to electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors.”

Jeremy Berg, editor in chief of Science, said the molecular motors initially stirred up controversy as scientists weren’t sure whether they could be defined as molecules, given they weren’t held together by covalent bonds. “It is a good sign that you have discovered or invented something novel when you create such a controversy.”

“This year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry strikes me as recognition of the value of chemical imagination,” Berg added.

Duncan Haldale


F. Duncan Haldane | Denise Applewhite/Princeton University Office of Communications

F. Duncan Haldane of Princeton University, also a AAAS fellow and member, and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University split the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics with David Thouless of the University of Washington. All three scientists are British but now work in the United States. The laureates earned the prize “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter,” according to the academy. The physics award was announced on 4 October.

The three researchers have studied unusual types of matter like superconductors, superfluids, and thin magnetic films using advanced mathematical models including concepts in topology, a branch of mathematics that describes properties that change in increments rather than continuously. Kosterlitz and Thouless have studied phenomena of surfaces so thin they can be considered two-dimensional, while Haldale has studied matter that forms such thin threads that they can be considered one-dimensional.

The laureates’ theoretical work has “ignited a firestorm of research, and although applications are still yet to come, I believe it’s only a matter of time before their research leads to advances as unimaginable to us now as lasers and computer chips were a hundred years ago,” Laura Greene, president-elect of the American Physical Society, told The New York Times

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded on 3 October to Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, a AAAS member, for his discovery of how cells degrade and recycle their components, a process called autophagy, from the Greek for “self-eating.”

The physiology or medicine, physics and chemistry awards represent the three science awards the academy announces each year. Each award carries an 8 million kroner ($930,000) prize that is shared by the teams honored or presented to single recipients. The prizes will be presented in Stockholm on 10 December, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death.

[Associated image: Vilseskogen/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0]