Lindau, Germany: All of last week, 580 young researchers from 67 countries, including at least 45 from India, were seen milling through the fairground of science with 23 Nobel laureates in chemistry in the island city of Lindau in southern Germany. They listened to the laureates, to their moments of mistakes and glory, took autographs and photographs and, more importantly, picked their brains in special sessions at the annual Nobel laureates meetings. If Martin Chalfie (Nobel 2008) joked about his 15 minutes of fame on Google News, where he was ranked with Britney Spears and he felt “he had indeed arrived”, Sir Harold Kroto (Nobel 1996) talked about the competitiveness and the downsides of the Grand Slam of science. Mint caught up with three Nobel laureates.
Robert H. Grubbs
Grubbs is from the California Institute of Technology and is one of the few Nobel
laureates whose research projects directly lead to the marketplace even as they continue to fine-tune them in their laboratory. Grubbs, along with two others, won the Prize for developing the metathesis method in organic chemistry, an important reaction that has allowed new molecules for pharmaceuticals, plastics and many other fields to be produced more efficiently and in an environment-friendly manner.
Robert H. Grubbs.
So when he said he is on a special expert committee of Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) and his job, along with some others, is to help the Indian conglomerate spur innovation, it didn’t come as a surprise. Fascinated by the fact that RIL is just about “30 years old and is present everywhere”, Grubbs is looking forward to his January trip to Mumbai, from where he’ll be flown to Jamnagar. “It’s interesting to see that this company wants to be Exxon and Wal-Mart at the same time,” he said.
Noyori never forgets how poor Japan was when he was growing up and how he
aspired to be an industrial scientist but ended up being in academia. Many years later, after he won the Prize in 2001, Noyori is forging ties with industry and is promoting “green chemistry”, one that leads to safe solvents and starting materials, renewable resources, less wastage and energy conservation.
His pet peeve, though, is that the public, in every country, underestimates the value of science but expects the fruits of science and technology nonetheless. As president of one of Japan’s largest research institutes, RIKEN, Noyori now devotes his time to making science and technology education “broad-based” not only in Japan but in the Asian region. He chairs the third Hope Meetings—to be held in Japan in October, in which most Asian countries, including India, will participate—for promotion of science. “Countries should understand that money cannot sustain the planet, only science and technology will,” he said.
Rowland and his colleagues’ discovery that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—the
man-made chemicals found in spray cans for paints, deodorants, repellents and so on—were contributing to the destruction of the ozone layer in the atmosphere in 1974 transported him from the lab to the public domain, a journey that has continued till date.
The work led to the Montreal Protocol, the global treaty banning the use of CFCs worldwide, and also earned him the Nobel in 1995. Today, it serves as a model for reaching consensus in climate change agreements.
Convinced that regulations and fiscal policies can make a difference to the often cacophonous climate change talks, Rowland is a supporter of geo-engineering if it is carefully thought out. His worry, though, is that in the present day, there aren’t many opportunities for young scientists to freely pursue research of their choice.
Did winning the Nobel Prize change your life?
Robert H. Grubbs: Professionally, things haven’t changed too much; I am doing what I was doing beforehand. But yes, it’s easier to do some things and more opportunities have opened up. Personally, we’ve been drinking more wine and dancing more (owing to invitations to events). I continue to guide a research group of about 20 and publish papers.
Ryoji Noyori: Yes, it changed my life completely. I got exposed to the public. I am suffering; I am not a good spokesperson even though now my mission is to inspire people to do science. I don’t have time for research any more.
Sherwood Rowland: The arrival of Nobel Prizes suddenly thrusts people, who’ve not been noted in the lay community, into public contact. In our case (along with Mario Molina, who shared the Nobel), the media started approaching us in the 1980s and we became public scientists much earlier. So, the question of change didn’t arise as such.
Why do Asian countries lag in getting the Nobel Prize? Is it a function of the quality or quantity of their science?
Grubbs: You could ask the same question for women. If you look at the Prize winners, they are over 60 years old, many are much older. Who was getting the PhDs and starting out academic positions 40 years ago? It was white males in the US. When I look at my career, I think we came at the right time. Sputnik (Russia’s robotic space launches) happened and science funding exploded in the 1960s. We all benefited. I think in 5-10 years, countries like India, China and others will start faring better on this front.
Noyori: I think the Nobel Prize appreciates originality in science and may be Asian countries focus on applied science. We should pursue more basic research as new theories come out of it… Asians also think differently from, say, the Americans. We look at things holistically, as against the reductionism of the Americans.
Rowland: My observation is that the number of scientists who are in a position to decide what science to do is very small, especially in developing countries. They can hardly ask the questions (through their research) that have no obvious purpose. That usually happens when you hire people and assign them to do certain things; that’s what most scientists are anyway… I managed to get funds (through Atomic Energy Commission research) even when some Congressmen said they couldn’t pronounce “chlorofluorocarbons” and wouldn’t fund the research.
Do you think Nobel laureates or internationally acclaimed scientists should be politically active and act as brand ambassadors of science?
Grubbs: Those who are good at it should do it, but we also need the best people directing the science and creating new ideas. Right now in the US, we are very excited that Steven Chu (Nobel in physics in 1997) is the energy secretary who has a few good scientists as undersecretaries.
Noyori: Politics has enormous power, it can change society. Scientists cannot change the behaviour of people but they can work with the politicians to bring about the necessary change, since without science societies cannot survive.
Scientists should also act as collaborators between countries; people expect too much from the scientific community, which I fear is getting too competitive. We should cooperate rather than compete.
Rowland: I don’t think that correlates. Unfortunately, there are some Nobel winners who have gone around speaking about something which they are relatively ignorant of; but it’s a consensus in the mainstream science that they be listened to.
Did you, in mid-career, think the road you took would ever take you to Stockholm?
Grubbs: No. Only in the last few years, four-five years before I got the Prize, did people start telling me (that my work was important) and I thought about it.
Noyori: No, never. But life is very unpredictable. I didn’t even want to get into the academics but when I did, I didn’t compete with the Americans or Europeans. I did not pursue fashionable science but one that was relevant to the world.
Rowland: (Laughs) The number of scientists who think they’d get the Prize is much larger than those who think otherwise. But there was some mention of it, in the news section of Science magazine. Moreover, the question of eligibility was also there since by the early 1990s it wasn’t clear if this kind of chemistry would be considered for nomination. It started to emerge when the Montreal Protocol came into being and things started getting serious.
Other than science, does anything else interest you?
Grubbs: My children have been my hobbies. I also spend a lot of time outdoors, walking and hiking, but one of these days, if my body permits, I’d return to wood-working and carpentry. Besides this, I work with three start-ups, two of which have been based on my research, and we continue to develop new products.
Noyori: Not quite; but my son is a painter, so I appreciate art. Moreover, through the Hope Meetings I am trying to get art into science so that we bring some humanness in science. If you push scientific and technological advancements too hard, then you’ll only produce mad scientists and mad engineers.
Rowland: (Smiles) I used to play basketball but not any more.
Photographs by Seema Singh