IT must have been a dramatic moment for everyone on board Pan American Flight 107, bound to Washington from Munich, West Germany, German, last Wednesday when the pilot came on the public-address system at 2:33 p.m. Eastern daylight time to announce that one of the passengers -- Jerome Karle of the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) -- had just won a Nobel Prize. But whether the congratulations showered forth in Stuttgart, Buffalo, or high in the sky, the work honored by this year's Nobel Prizes in science has a common theme. It deals with phenomena at the level of molecules and atoms. It illustrates how deeply modern scientific insight must penetrate the fundamental levels of matter to understand biological life and the universe.
Karle shares the prize for chemistry with his former NRL colleague Herbert A. Hauptman, director of a small research center -- the Medical Foundation of Buffalo, N.Y. They have developed mathematical techniques for delineating the three-dimensional structure of small, biological molecules from the patterns of dots in X-ray pictures of crystals of these chemicals.
Their basic work, done three decades ago, was controversial and slow to be accepted. But with the arrival of fast computers, which made their techniques available for routine use, their achievement won wide acclaim. It has cut the time needed to analyze the structure of a small biological molecule -- say, one containing 50 atoms -- from years to days. This has allowed molecular biologists to work out the structure of thousands of these molecules, yielding new insights into the chemistry of organic life.
No wonder the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called this an ``outstanding achievement'' and awarded it the prize, even though it deals with the means for studying molecules rather than being a basic discovery about the nature of the molecules themselves. Now the two prizewinners, along with other researchers, are searching for ways to use these techniques to decode the structures of large molecules as well.
Meanwhile, at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Physics in Stuttgart, West Germany, Klaus von Klitzing has brought West Germany its first Nobel Prize in Physics in 22 years. His discovery that, at temperatures near absolute zero (459.67 degrees below zero F.) and under a strong magnetic field, the electrical resistance of a current-carrying material does not vary continuously. It changes by definite, discrete amounts.
It has long been known that the energy of electrons in atoms does not vary continuously, but jumps between different energy levels in discrete amounts. Electron energy is said to be ``quantized.'' Von Klitzing found that resistance to the flow of current-carrying electrons is quantized also. The statement announcing his prize called the discovery ``a great surprise'' to physicists studying electrical properties.
Michael S. Brown and Joseph L. Goldstein of the University of Texas, who share the prize for medicine and physiology, have worked with equally surprising microscopic phenomena involved in cholesterol metabolism. Although physiologists consider excess bodily cholesterol unhealthy, the biochemical is also considered biologically essential. It is, for example, the main constituent of cell membranes.
The Texas prizewinners have elucidated how cells deal with cholesterol and use it to make essential products. They discovered tiny receptors on cell surfaces which capture the chemicals called lipoproteins, which transport cholesterol in the body, and defined their key role in the body's use of cholesterol. The award announcement said this research has ``drastically widened our understanding'' of an essential biological process.
The award also illustrates a limitation of the Nobel Prizes -- their categories are not broad enough to cover all the work that should be honored. Were there a biology prize, the Texas scientists might have been given that, leaving the medicine-physiology category open for someone else. Likewise, the rare award to an astronomer has been squeezed into the physics category.
Recognizing a need, Swedish authorities have broadened the prize opportunities in science. Work in astronomy, bioscience, earth science, mathematics, and polyarthritis now can be honored by the Crafoord Prize, given by the Royal Swedish Academy and meant to rank with the Nobel awards. On Oct. 3, Princeton University astronomer Lyman Spitzer received this award from King Carl Gustaf XVI in Stockholm. Spitzer, who inspired the Hubble space telescope that is to be orbited next year, is honored for a lifeti me of major contributions.
A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.