On 23 July 1906, Vladimir Prelog (1906–1998) was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
He was co-awarded the 1975 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his research into the stereochemistry of organic molecules and reactions,” along with J.W. Cornforth (1917–2013) “for his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions.” He had been professor of Chemistry in Zagreb until the beginning of World War II, which required him to immigrate to Switzerland, where he taught at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich for the remainder of his career.
His autobiography, published as My 132 Semesters of Chemistry Studies (1991), noted: “Looking back, I became rather clearly aware that all in all for someone born in Sarajevo, I have been very lucky, and I cannot imagine alternative circumstances in my life that would have allowed me to achieve more.”
The Cahn–Ingold–Prelog (CIP) sequence rules are used to “completely and unequivocally” label the stereoisomers of a molecule. Rotating a carbon-centered stereo-isomer, the lowest priority group (low atomic number ←periodic table) is moved to the back, and the highest priority group (high atomic number → periodic table) to the top. The numbering of the functional groups is then traced along this priority ranking, identifying different enantiomers (L/D isomerism, Cis–trans isomerism, E-Z isomerism, etc.). His Nobel Lecture (12 Dec 1975) outlined some interesting theological reflections regarding these stereoisomers.
“[A]lthough most compounds involved in fundamental life processes, such as sugars and amino acids, are chiral and although the energy of both enantiomers and the probability of their formation in an achiral environment are equal, only one enantiomer occurs in Nature; the enantiomers involved in life processes are the same in men, animals, plants and microorganisms, independent on their place and time on Earth. Many hypotheses have been conceived about this subject, which can be regarded as one of the first problems of molecular theology. One possible explanation is that the creation of living matter was an extremely improbable event, which occurred only once.”
The book Cosmos, Bios, Theos (1992) included an initial analysis by Prof. Vladimir Prelog on this question — the mysterious origin(s) of living matter in the cosmos:
“I follow with interest the discussions concerning the origin of the universe, of life, and of man, especially in the molecular area. I marvel at the courage of the scientists who deal with questions of the origin and seek answers for them. I only fear that our knowledge concerning the physical, chemical, and biological (as well as the psychological and epistemological) bases does not suffice to give presently satisfying answers. The search for these foundations (for instance, the structure of matter of the molecular evolution) which, as Isaac Rabi said, brings us closer to God, is in my opinion the noblest task of the sciences.”
— “Cahn–Ingold–Prelog priority rules.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
—Prelog, Vladimir. My 132 Semesters of Studies of Chemistry. (Washington, DC: American Chemical Society (ACS) Press, 1991), 85.
— Prelog, Vladimir. “Chirality in Chemistry.” Stockholm, SWE. 12 Dec 1975.
— Margenau, Henry, & Roy Varghese. Cosmos, Bios, Theos. (Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1992), 187. Images online: https://amzn.to/2uZh52u; http://vprelog.sweb.cz