3 Chemists Win Nobel for Computer Modeling Work

an atom with electrons zipping around
The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to three scientists for work that allows quantum and classical physics to work side-by-side in computer models to predict complex chemical reactions. (Image credit: Roman Sigaev | Shutterstock)

The Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded jointly to three scientists for laying the foundation for powerful computer models that are used to understand and predict complex chemical processes.

Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel won the Nobel in chemistry "for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems," according to a statement by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today (Oct. 9).

The trio's work was notable because they were able to apply both classical physics (that laid out by Isaac Newton) and quantum physics to their models of chemical processes and reactions. For instance, the quantum calculations were performed on the atoms and electrons within larger molecules, while classical calculations could simulate the reactions of these larger molecules.

Beginning in the 1970s, Warshel and Karplus worked to develop a computer model of retinal, a molecule in the eye's retina that has "free electrons," or those that can hop between atomic nuclei. While their model could handle both quantum and classical physics to simulate retinal, it could only simulate those molecules with mirror symmetry. That's where Levitt came in. Levitt and Warshel worked for several years, overcoming many obstacles, in their quest to develop a program that would allow quantum and classic theory to work side-by-side in a computer model of any type of molecule. [Photos: Stunning Peek Inside Molecules]

"Today the computer is just as important a tool for chemists as the test tube," according to a statement by the Academy. "Simulations are so realistic that they predict the outcome of traditional experiments."

Karplus, who was born in 1930 in Vienna, is a U.S. and Austrian citizen. He received his doctoral degree in 1953 from Cal Tech and is now at Université de Strasbourg, France, and Harvard University.

Levitt, who was born in 1947 in Pretoria, South Africa, is a U.S., British and Israeli citizen. He received a doctoral degree in 1971 from the University of Cambridge in the UK and is now at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Warshel, who was born in 1940 in Kibbutz Sde-Nahum, Israel, is a U.S. and Israeli citizen. He received his doctoral degree in 1969 from Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and is now at University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

The three Laureates will share equally the award of $1.25 million (8 million Swedish krona).

Follow Jeanna Bryner on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.