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Harvard professor shares Nobel chemistry prize

October 9, 2013

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — Harvard professor Martin Karplus was asleep at home in Cambridge when he got a call at about 5 a.m. Wednesday telling him that he was one of three scientists to share this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The 83-year-old emeritus professor initially was worried something bad might have happened to his daughter, who lives in Israel. It took a few minutes to realize the call was good news from Sweden.

“They said, ‘You sound so calm!’ Well, ‘I’m still half asleep,’” he said, laughing. The news slowly started to sink in as other members of the Nobel committee called to congratulate him and warn him that a public announcement was about to be made.

“I was very pleased, obviously, to hear it,” he said. “It shows the world has accepted techniques we’ve developed as part of something that’s worthwhile.”

Karplus and the two other U.S.-based scientists won for developing powerful computer models that researchers use to understand complex chemical interactions and create new drugs. Their work was done in the 1970s.

Karplus splits his time between Harvard and the University of Strasbourg, France.

“We are very proud to celebrate Martin Karplus’ ground-breaking research today,” Harvard President Drew Faust said in a statement. “Professor Karplus and his fellow researchers harnessed the power of technology to map, as the Nobel committee put it in honoring them, ‘the mysterious ways of chemistry.’”

Some graduate students stopped by Karplus’ home early Wednesday to congratulate him. Later he held a news conference at Harvard, where he said he considered going to medical school until a professor there got him excited about chemistry.

“And I realized what I really wanted to do was understand the biological systems and the only way to do this was to do chemistry and physics, because all of what goes on in us is governed by chemistry and physics,” he said.

Karplus was born in Vienna and graduated from Harvard College in 1951. He has a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology. The other Nobel winners were researchers Michael Levitt of Stanford University and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California.

Karplus is also a photographer who recently had an exhibition in Paris. And he enjoys working alongside famous chefs in restaurants, putting his knowledge of science to use in the kitchen.

“Real chemistry where you get an instant reward is if you make a good dinner,” he said.

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