CAMBRIDGE — It was the simple parental desire to avoid having two boys blow stuff up in the basement of their Newton home that helped set Martin Karplus on a path that culminated Wednesday in science’s most prestigious prize: the Nobel. After Karplus begged his parents for a chemistry set like the one his brother, Robert, was using to create all kinds of awful smells and small explosions, they gave him a microscope instead.
At first it felt like a consolation gift, but soon, Karplus could not be torn away from his microscope, preferring to gaze at tiny critters found in pond scum instead of eating meals. That led him to a love of nature and birds. And eventually, he decided he wanted to understand biology — really understand it.
“I was supposed to be a doctor,” said Karplus, whose family was Jewish and fled Austria after the Nazi takeover in 1938. But in Brighton and later Newton — where he learned to be an American kid, playing stickball and even shoplifting candy — he found himself drawn to something quite different.
“I realized what I really wanted to do was understand biological systems, and the only way to do this was to do chemistry and physics,” Karplus said during a news conference at Harvard, where he is now an emeritus professor. “Because all of what goes on inside of us is governed by chemistry and physics.”
The 83-year-old Karplus is sharing the Nobel Prize in chemistry with Michael Levitt, 66, of Stanford University, and Arieh Warshel, 72, of the University of Southern California. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited the trio, all of whom were born abroad, for creating computer programs that laid the groundwork for a sea change in how chemistry is done, using software in addition to test tubes and bunsen burners to understand how molecules will behave.
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