“This year’s prize,” announced Secretary General Gunnar Öquist, “rewards studies of how the DNA code is translated into life. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly to Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Professor Thomas Steitz, and Professor Ada Yonath.”

Translation is an apt metaphor. DNA and RNA, the bearers of life’s genetic blueprints, consist of strings of bases. Proteins, life’s principal building blocks, consist of strings of amino acids. Making proteins entails converting one molecular language to the other quickly and accurately. In all living things, from bacteria to baboons, the translator is the ribosome.

By the 1970s, molecular biologists had figured out what ribosomes are made of (a mixture of RNA and protein) and identified translation’s main steps, but they didn’t know the underlying chemistry. Because chemistry entails the exchange and sharing of electrons on scales of a few angstroms, understanding...

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