Academic family: the Nobel prize in Chemistry 2014

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 14 October, 2014 - 13:29

Guest post by JessTheChemist

‘Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which of the two has a grander view?’ – Victor Hugo

In 1873, German physicist Ernst Abbe reported that the resolution limit of the optical microscope was 0.2 micrometres. Although this still remains true, recent work in the field of microscopy – specifically Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED) microscopy and single-molecule microscopy – has allowed scientists to visualise molecules smaller than this limit. This is accomplished by tagging molecules with fluorescent labels, which allows a more detailed picture to be visualised. On Wednesday 8th October 2014 Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner were awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for their ground-breaking work in ‘the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy’. You can learn more about the ins and outs of the Nobel prize winners’ work by reading the recent Chemistry World article.

I am interested in finding out how chemists are connected to each other, and in particular, investigating whether your likelihood of winning a Nobel prize is increased by having a high number of laureates in your family tree.  It is also interesting to see how closely related, if at all, are the scientists that share a prize.

If we consider his academic pedigree, one might say that Eric Betzig was destined to become a Nobel prize winner. He is connected to a number of notable laureates, including the father of nuclear physics, Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1908 ‘for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances’. Through Rutherford, Betzig is also connected to Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1922 for ‘his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them’.

Additionally, Betzig is academically related to John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) who won the prize for physics for the discovery of argon in 1904, along with his collaborator Sir William Ramsay, who won the 1904 chemistry prize for the same discovery. With ancestry like that, Betzig was always destined for greatness.

Alternatively, William Moerner is closely linked to Dudley Herschbach and Yuan T. Lee, who won the 1986 Nobel prize in chemistry ‘for their contributions to the dynamics of chemical elementary processes’. To find out more about Herschbach and Lee’s academic family connections, check out last month’s blog post about one of their connections, Sir Harry Kroto.

Although Eric Betzig and William Moerner worked independently from one another, they both developed single-molecule microscopy, so it is not a surprise that their lineage is intertwined. As you can see from the tree, they are connected via some of the science greats such as Linus Pauling.

Stefan Hell worked in a slightly different field to Betzig and Moerner and, amongst others, is connected to biochemists Robert Huber and Johann Deisenhofer, who won the 1988 Nobel prize for chemistry ‘for the determination of the three-dimensional structure of a photosynthetic reaction centre’.  As predicted, however, all three of the prize winners can be connected through their academic relations – via Deisenhofer, Hell can be connected to Moerner and, therefore, Betzig.

As you can see, all three winners have a rich Nobel history but what I found particularly interesting about this academic family tree is that it contains scientists from all sorts of backgrounds – from nuclear physics to biochemistry to organic chemistry. This led me to think, what kind of scientists am I connected to? To find out what kind of scientists you are connected to, head to, where you can add yourself to the website and start creating your very own tree.  You never know who you may be connected to.

And don’t forget to tweet me (@Jessthechemist) with suggestions for the focus of next month’s blog post!

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