If the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine are the Academy Awards of science, this year's citations are the equivalent of lifetime-achievement awards. The two youngest of the nine new laureates, announced last week, were born in 1936. Perhaps the awards committees in Sweden saw the 100th granting of the prizes as a chance to clear up some overlooked business as the new century begins.
The $920,000 award for medicine or physiology this year will be split evenly among three researchers. Swedish pharmacologist Arvid Carlsson deserves a bonus for patience as well: it's been almost half a century since he discovered that the brain chemical dopamine carries messages between nerve cells. American Paul Greengard, of Rockefeller University in New York, earned his share for figuring out exactly how dopamine works--by changing the properties of important proteins. Farther uptown, Eric Kandel of New York's Columbia University focused his attention on much smaller brains, using sea slugs to work out the first insights into how memories are formed.
Jack Kilby, who says he has "not even one" idea of how he'll spend his one-half share of the physics prize, worked with a different kind of memory. As a researcher at Texas Instruments in the early 1960s, he patented the first microchip, helping launch the computer revolution. Russian physicist Zhores Alferov and the German-born Herbert Kroemer, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, split the rest of the award for developing "semiconductor heterostructures," used in everything from amplifiers for mobile phones to laser light sources for CD players and fiber-optic telephone lines. The prize in chemistry was divided evenly among Alan Heeger, also at UCSB, Hideki Shirakawa of Japan's University of Tsukuba and Alan MacDiarmid of the University of Pennsylvania, who developed plastics that can carry an electrical charge. That work, done in the late 1970s, is just now finding wide commercial application and may lead to microscopic electronic components.
The prizes in each of the three science categories will be awarded at a ceremony in Stockholm in December. While the laureates have all had full careers and plenty of honors, Kilby says winning a Nobel is still special. "I've had a great deal of recognition, but this one is a bit unique; I'm particularly glad to have it." Some things are worth waiting for, even if it takes half a lifetime.