Because he communicates mostly through email and texting, Stanford professor Michael Levitt's phone rarely rings.
And he had no inkling he was even a candidate for the Nobel Prize.
"There actually are websites where people make predictions about who will get the Nobel Prize, and I'm happy to report I wasn't on any of them," said Stanford's newest Nobel Laureate, looking stunned but giddy on Wednesday. "I guess I was a long shot."
So when he was roused from his slumber early Wednesday morning, he thought the early morning call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences -- via Skype forwarded to his cellphone -- was a wrong number.
Startled, he listened to the Nobel officials greet him with the happy news. Then the phone was handed over to some of Levitt's Swedish colleagues, who teased him about an overdue review paper, a long-ago evening involving copious alcohol, and the prospect of sea kayaking in the cold Stockholm archipelago after December's awards ceremony.
"It was so personal," he said at a Wednesday morning news conference, charming the international media with his wit and humility. "Otherwise it could have been a really elaborate hoax."
His field of computational chemistry makes it possible to study the structural changes of molecules as they go through processes such as photosynthesis or digestion.
It is now routine to use computers to model complex experiments before moving into the messy real-life "wet" lab work.
"Today we take computer modeling in biology for granted, but Dr. Levitt was one of its pioneers, using it to predict the shapes of important biological molecules," said Stanford School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor.
"Thanks to his agile mind, not to mention his boundless energy, curiosity and collegiality, he effortlessly crosses the disciplines of computer science, physics and biology to carry out this foundational work in computational biology," Minor said.
At the news conference, Levitt described his early career as a postdoctoral scholar in Cambridge, England -- newly married, with a brand-new baby and no money -- where he began building the foundational software algorithms that now allow researchers to simulate complex biological processes within the body.
After a morning of child care, "I'd run into the lab for three hours to type punch cards, frantically, then go home," he recalled.
His imagination was vast, but there were limits to what the computer could do.
His first one had only one megabyte of memory -- far less than today's average smartphone -- so programs had to be crammed into small slices. And there were flaws. "We'd catch three bugs a day," he said.
Greater computational power was needed to study large molecules and chemical reactions.
The trio of Nobel Laureates -- Levitt, Martin Karplus of the University of Strasbourg in France and Harvard University and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California -- decided to focus their limited computational power on the part of a molecule that is most relevant to a reaction, according to the magazine New Scientist.
This was their strategy: Model inactive parts of a molecule using classical chemical techniques, then apply complex quantum mechanics for those parts of a molecule actively engaged in a chemical reaction.
In 1972, Warshel and Karplus were the first to develop simulation software that focused on only electrons, leaving more conventional chemical approaches for other parts of the molecule.
In 1976, Levitt and Warshel extended the technique to study many atoms, creating the first computer model of a reacting enzyme, the proteins that control chemical reactions within the body.
Because of their insights, chemists now can simulate any molecule, allowing dry runs of experiments before getting messy in the lab.
Staffan Normark of Sweden's Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called it "taking the chemical experiment to cyberspace."
"At that time, there was a lot of resistance," Levitt recalled.
"Biology has always been dominated by experiments. We are trained to use computers just to tie loose ends together. But we wanted to simulate the large molecules that make everything work in cells. Because they are large, you must use computers."
At 66, Levitt does not plan to retire. This week, "we actually made progress on three difficult problems," he said.
His hero is French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who at 70 indignantly told someone at her Museum of Modern Art exhibit, "You think this is a retrospective? I'm just beginning." Then she rented a Brooklyn warehouse and went on to create her most famous work.
"That's kind of how I want to be," Levitt said about his post-Nobel plans. "Science is a passion."
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.