K. Barry Sharpless’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 2001
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
One hundred years ago the first Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to the Dutch Chemist Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff. Although the citation on van ‘t Hoff’s award acknowledges him for “the extraordinary services he rendered by the discovery of the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions”, van ‘t Hoff is actually best remembered for his postulation that the carbon atom in organic compounds has a three-dimensional tetrahedral structure.
Catalytic Asymmetric Synthesis, for which William S. Knowles, Ryoji Noyori, and I have the honor to be present among this august company, is a way to control the three-dimensional nature of molecules that van ‘t Hoff was the first to perceive.
We have a word game in English called “Twenty questions.” To play Twenty Questions, one player imagines some object, and the other players must guess what it is by asking questions that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” I imagine every language has a similar game, and, for those of us who speak the language of science, the game is called the The Scientific Method.
It took more than half a century after van ‘t Hoff before anyone asked the right questions about 3-D chemistry, and that was Bill Knowles. It won him asymmetric control over a useful catalytic reaction, thereby breaking Nature’s monopoly. Ryoji and I followed his line of questioning.
Thus this centennial award for chemistry brings a certain symmetry to the asymmetric nature of the chemical universe. Or shall I just say the entire universe, because even the economists are asymmetric this year.