USC prof Arieh Warshel among winners of Nobel Prize in chemistry

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Update 11:45 a.m.: Free parking spot for Nobel winner from USC

Arieh Warshel won more than just the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday: He earned a free parking spot for life at the university where he works.

The University of Southern California says that privilege goes to all Nobel laureates from the school. University President C.L. Max Nikias told Warshel he will get a reserved spot and receive a refund for the parking he paid for so far this year.

Warshel shared the $1.2 million honor with U.S.-based scientists Martin Karplus and Michael Levitt for developing powerful computer models that researchers use to understand chemical interactions.

Located south of downtown Los Angeles, USC has garnered four Nobel prizes in its history.


Updated 10:39 a.m.: A professor at the University of Southern California was one of three winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry that were announced Wednesday.

Arieh Warshel, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, shared the honor with Martin Karplus of the Université de Strasbourg in France and Harvard University, and Michael Levitt of Stanford University.

The award was given for “the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”

Namely, the work of Warshel, Karplus and Levitt paved the way for scientists to use ever more complicated computer simulations to "see" molecules and how they interact at the smallest levels. 

In an interview with Adam Smith of, Warshel underscored the importance of computers in contemporary science.

"I think that, like in the field of understanding enzymes, it's extremely convenient to ignore careful computations, but once they get their notoriety, it will become much clearer that this is ... I keep writing ... it's the best tool to understand what really happens inside the biological molecule," Warshel said. Interview with Prof. Arieh Warshel

— KPCC staff

7:04 a.m.: Nobel prize goes to scientists who took chemistry into cyberspace

This year's Nobel Prize for chemistry is shared by three international scientists, who moved chemistry out of the lab and into the world of computing.

Together they developed tools for studying complex molecules — such as enzymes in the human body and plants' photosynthesis machinery — inside cyberspace.

These computerized tools allow scientists to design drugs more quickly and cheaply by doing their experiments with computer programs instead of inside rats and monkeys.

All three scientists — Martin Karplus of the University of Strasbourg and Harvard University, Michael Levitt of Stanford University and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California — were born overseas. But they met up at Harvard in the early 1970s to start their work.

They were all focused on the same task: watching molecules perform their chemical dances with the help of a computer.

The secret to their success was marrying two branches of physics that typically oppose each other. "Quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics don't usually agree or work together," Sven Lidin of the Nobel Prize committee said. "The laureates made them friends."

Chemical reactions happen at lightning speeds, so it's very difficult to study the details in the lab in real time.

But if you can write computer programs that simulate the reactions, you can slow them down and figure out exactly how they work. Then you can start to optimize them. For instance, you can make more efficient solar cells, better drugs to fight cancer or cheaper catalytic converters that break down air pollutants.

That's exactly, what Karplus, a young professor at Harvard University, was trying to do back in 1972. He turned to quantum physics for help with the task. But he was soon stuck because quantum mechanical calculations require massive computing power — even more than is easily available today. Back then, the situation was even more daunting. Many computers were sill programmed with punch cards.

Then Warshel came to Karplus' lab as a postdoctoral fellow. He had just finished his doctorate at Weizmann Institute in Israel, where he and Levitt had been developing models like the ones Karplus was working on. But instead of using quantum mechanics, Warshel and Levitt made use of classical mechanics.

Pioneered by Isaac Newton in the 17th century, classical mechanics requires much less computing power than quantum mechanics, but it isn't always as accurate. That's where quantum mechanics shines.

Then Karplus and Warshel had an insight: Why not combine the two branches of physics — use quantum mechanics to simulate parts of a molecule that need high accuracy but then clasgood sical mechanics for everything else.

The strategy allowed Karplus and Warshel to make some of the first models of small molecules in the computer, including one of vitamin A.

But their approach was still quite limited. It couldn't tackle problems like drug design and photosynthesis because these reactions involve giant molecules, called enzymes.

That's where Levitt's research came into to help. After two years at Harvard, Warshel reunited with Levitt in Israel and later Cambridge University. By 1976, the two had cracked how to model molecules of almost any size in the computer.

This advance opened the door for scientists all over the world to study a vast array of chemical reactions, such as how enzymes in our body break down toxins, convert sugar into energy and interact with drugs.

"What we've done ... is to develop methods that allow us to see how proteins actually work," Warshel said Tuesday. "It's like seeing a watch and wondering how it actually works. If you have an enzyme that digests food, you want to understand how it's happening ... to design drugs, or, in my case, satisfy my curiosity."



Nobel Prize in chemistry


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