This year's Nobel Prizes are being announced this week. The Chemistry Prize is announced on Wednesday and I doubt that it will go to anyone researching polymers. Since the first prize was given out in 1901, only 4 times has it been given to polymer scientists: Staudinger in 1953, Ziegler/Natta in 1963, Flory in 1974 and Heeger/MacDiarmid/Shirakawa in 2000. You could argue that polymers were never in the running in 1901, as it was only in the 1920's that Staudinger began his crusade to have polymers recognized for what they are - macromolecules and not just colloidal associations as others would have argued. In that case, there were only 62 chances to win since 1953, so the odds are quite a bit better than they originally appear. (Coincidentally, only 4 women have also won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but that is a different discussion for another day.)
But regardless of the exact calculation, the slim number of prizes reinforces my long running argument that polymer chemistry is just a small fraction of the world of chemistry. Arguments that half chemists work in polymers have no merit. I ran some numbers earlier this year and came up with 8% or so as a more realistic number. This number in fact correlates rather well with the number of Nobel Prizes (4/62 = 6.5%).
Whoever does win, I do hope that their research can be easily explained to freshman. I have a whole class full of them and being able to include this as enrichment material on Wednesday morning would be wonderful. It's been a good year for making tie-ins with current events. The timing could not have been better for ytterbium to be reassigned a new atomic weight, since I had just been lecturing about how the fractional abundances of isotopes contribute to atomic weights, and suddenly there was this real world example. Similarly, the discover of flowing water on Mars (on the basis of sodium-/magnesium perchlorate) was perfectly timed with a lecture on electrolytes in water (thank you NASA!). So if the people in Stockholm could give me a heads up so that I have time to adequately prepare, I would appreciate it.