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Spring 2000

Nobel Men
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For Paul Boyer, the 1997 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was "an unexpected pleasure." It had been 20 years since he formulated a hypothesis to describe what he calls "the most prominent chemical reaction in the whole world." It is the process by which molecules produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate), thereby transmuting light, air, water and food into the energy required for both plant and animal life.

Boyer had been greeted with disbelief when he theorized that the previously mysterious process is the work of a "beautiful little machine" that operates within enzymes on the molecular level. His proposed resolution of a major unsolved problem in biochemistry threatened to "change the paradigm," Boyer remembers, and "the leading journal" in his field -The Journal of Biological Chemistry-declined to publish his work.

Since then, the tiny machine, which Boyer calls an "internal rotation mechanism," has been photographed in action. But at the time he proposed it, Boyer's hypothesis was so original that a methodology to either confirm or disprove it had not been invented. With his work still clouded by uncertainty, Boyer decided that his career was over. In 1989 he closed his laboratory at UCLA and retired to the streams and mountains of Wyoming, where, at the age of 80, he still fishes, hikes and plays both golf and tennis.

A few years later, Boyer experienced "one of the warmest moments of my life" when he learned that British biochemist John Walker had worked out the methodology required to demonstrate whether Boyer had been right or wrong. By that time, Boyer had been gone from UCLA for so long that the departmental secretary didn't know where to send Walker's manuscript. But obscurity wasn't a problem for long.

Using Walker's methodology, one of Boyer's former graduate students "did some elegant chemical work to demonstrate that the molecular rotation actually occurred." Boyer's hypothesis, finally, had been proven correct. For work that so enriched understanding of the life process itself, he and Walker were jointly awarded the Nobel prize in 1997.

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