On the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize, the government of Sweden and more than a dozen California educational institutions remind us that a disproportionate number of laureates have ties to the state--ties, it must be admitted, that in some cases seem comparable to an innkeeper's boast that George Washington slept there.
So be it. The Golden State is nothing if not inclusive. Of the 732 Nobel laureates, 105 have some California connection, according to Mardi de Veuve Alexis, one of two coordinators of the California Nobel Prize Centennial Project sponsored by the Consulates General of Sweden in Los Angeles and San Francisco. More than half of those winners are still living.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 18, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Nobel Prize winners--In the Magazine's Nobel Prize anniversary issue on Dec. 2, it was incorrectly stated that Linus Pauling was the only person to win Nobels in two categories. In fact, Marie Curie won Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 6, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
In the Nobel Prize Anniversary Issue, it was incorrectly stated that Linus Pauling was the only person to win Nobels in two categories ("Winner's Circle," Dec. 2). Marie Curie won Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry.
Here, we salute 100 of the laureates with California ties in brief profiles (arranged alphabetically within prize categories, and based on information drawn from the Nobel Foundation and other sources) by writer Debra J. Hotaling. Also, Times staff writer Terence Monmaney sketches the work of five more scientists whose prizewinning research swiftly led to practical applications that remain newsworthy. As it happens, all five are laureates in chemistry, a science that can be as penetratingly pure as any other but that also rolls up its sleeves to create new material for our material world.
K. Barry Sharpless / Chemistry
When K. Barry Sharpless describes his research synthesizing molecules, for which he was awarded a share of this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry, he sounds like an ad for a soap opera, with his talk of passion, obsession, suffering, excitement, love and monomania. In experiments dating back more than two decades, the 60-year-old Sharpless, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla since 1991, created ways to synthesize valuable chemicals--including insecticides, fragrances, flavors and a variety of drugs, from taxol, a cancer chemotherapy, to erythromycin, an antibiotic. His work has dazzled chemists, saved drug and chemical companies vats of cash and helped bring to market lots of stuff that people need.
Among other things, the tools he invented, known to chemists as the Sharpless Asymmetric Epoxidation, acknowledge that many complex organic compounds come in two forms that are mirror images of each other. They are colloquially referred to as left-handed and right-handed. Like gloves, such compounds are essentially the same but not interchangeable. And nature tends to prefer one version over the other.
For instance, a living cell might make a protein using a left-handed amino acid; to the cell, the right-handed version of the amino acid would be like a key that doesn't fit the lock. Even you can tell the difference between the two forms of a so-called chiral molecule: While the left-handed form of the compound limonene smells like a lemon, its right-handed twin smells like an orange.
For chemists, the problem had been that the usual approaches to synthesizing a compound atom by atom created both the left- and right-handed versions. In essence, half of nearly every batch was wasted. Then, in 1980, Sharpless, working at MIT with Tsutomou Katsuki, found a way to steer certain synthesis reactions to produce either the left- or right-handed version, as desired.
The importance of being able to do so is hard to overestimate. Consider the thalidomide crisis of the early 1960s, in which thousands of pregnant women in Europe and Canada who took the drug gave birth to deformed babies. The pills contained a mixture of the left-handed and right-handed forms of the drug; one eased symptoms of morning sickness and the other caused the birth defects.
If the Dartmouth- and Stanford-educated Sharpless looks like a chemist--thin, khaki slacks, button-down shirt, eyeglasses--he often sounds like a poet, offering rhapsodies on "conformational analysis" and forever comparing his laboratory adventures to fishing, which he fervently pursued while growing up on the New Jersey shore. "What the ocean was to me as a child, the periodic table is to the chemist," he wrote of the chart of the elements in a 1994 essay.
Around Scripps, it's occasionally said that someone who's late for an appointment must be talking with Sharpless, so captivating is his enthusiasm. Winning the Nobel, says Sharpless, was "empowering" and also something of a relief, given that chemists had been kidding him for years that he would one day receive the honor.
At the same time, he says, he's somewhat frustrated because the obligations and celebrity of the prize made demands on his time that are keeping him from the lab, where he is working "on a different scale from anything I've ever done before. I need time for that. So I'm suffering." He added, "The Nobel Prize can cause a lot of trouble for a guy like me, who's just a nut about science."
Paul Berg / Chemistry