2013 Chemistry Nobel Prize Awarded for Computer Modeling of Chemical Reactions

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided, on October 9, 2013, to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2013 to Martin Karplus, Université de Strasbourg, France and Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA; Michael Levitt, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, USA; and Arieh Warshel, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.” Chemists once created models of molecules using plastic balls and sticks. Today, the modelling is carried out in computers. In the 1970s, Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel laid the foundation for the powerful programs that are used to understand and predict chemical processes. Computer models mirroring real life have become crucial for most advances made in chemistry today. Chemical reactions occur at lightning speed. In a fraction of a millisecond, electrons jump from one atomic nucleus to the other. Classical chemistry has a hard time keeping up; it is virtually impossible to experimentally map every little step in a chemical process. Aided by the methods now awarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, scientists let computers unveil chemical processes, such as a catalyst’s purification of exhaust fumes or the photosynthesis in green leaves. The work of Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel is ground-breaking in that they managed to make Newton’s classical physics work side-by-side with the fundamentally different quantum physics. Previously, chemists had to choose to use one or the other. The strength of classical physics was that calculations were simple and could be used to model really large molecules. Its weakness was that it offered no way to simulate chemical reactions. For that purpose, chemists instead had to use quantum physics.
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