Coveting brother’s gift sparked US Nobel winner
By Jason Szep
BOSTON (Reuters) – At age 8, Richard Schrock treasured a
life-altering gift from his older brother: a chemistry set
whose explosive solutions and puzzling directions ignited a
passion that culminated on Wednesday with the Nobel Prize.
The birthday present from his 13-year-old brother Theodore
exposed Schrock to the heart of chemistry — the transformation
of matter — that propelled the son of an Indiana carpenter to
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he teaches.
“Before the chemistry set I was probably building huts out
in the woods or something,” Schrock said just hours after The
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences telephoned him at his
Massachusetts home to award him the 2005 Nobel Prize in
“I became interested in not only making things explode and
so on, but doing real experiments like adding zinc to HCL
hydrochloric acid and getting hydrogen. And that transformation
of matter is what is truly amazing to me still,” he said.
Schrock shares the $1.3 million prize with fellow American
Robert Grubbs and Frenchman Yves Chauvin for their work in
metathesis, a process the Academy likened to a dance in which
molecules switch partners to form entirely new molecules.
The research into molecule synthesis laid the groundwork
for new drugs to treat illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Down’s
Syndrome, HIV/AIDS and cancer, while helping to develop
stronger plastics and better ways to preserve food.
The 63-year-old father of two said he was notified he had
won a Nobel, the greatest prize in academia, at 5:35 a.m. EDT
(0935 GMT), and that he was “very excited, very nervous” and
would celebrate even while visiting England next week to give a
Metathesis, which means “changing places,” refers to a
reorganization in groups of atoms of carbon which form the
building blocks of all organic life on Earth.
Scientists at industrial companies discovered metathesis in
the 1950s but it was poorly understood until 1971 when Chauvin
proposed a recipe for achieving it. In 1990, Schrock developed
its key ingredients — special catalyst molecules.
Two years later, Grubbs forged an even better catalyst.
“Chemistry is about making things, the ability to transform
one type of matter into another,” said Schrock, who graduated
from University of California in 1967 and received a doctorate
at Harvard University four years later.
“That’s what is so exciting if you can control it, and that
is what I think we have done — Grubbs and I — to control the
transformation of matter in a very useful and very specific way
that can be applied probably to many areas in chemistry.”
That fascination with mixing materials into new creations
inspired other hobbies Schrock considers bound to the
fundamentals of chemistry — from cooking to wood-working and
hammering together his own furniture.
“I love to cook. That’s chemistry you can eat. I love to do
wood-working. I love to make things,” he said.