Telephone interview with Ei-ichi Negishi following the announcement of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 6 October 2010. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
[Ei-ichi Negishi] Hello?
[Adam Smith] Hello, may I speak to Professor Negishi please?
[EN] Yes, speaking.
[AS] Hello, this is Adam Smith calling from the Nobel Prize website, in Stockholm.
[EN] Ah ha!
[AS] My congratulations on the ...
[EN] Well, thank you very much!
[AS] We have a tradition of recording just very brief telephone interviews with new Laureates for the Nobel Prize website on the day of the Announcement. Would you be free to speak for a few minutes?
[EN] Ah, yes!
[AS] Thank you so much. So, I gathered from the Press Conference at the KVA that you were asleep when the call came?
[AS] And this came as unexpected news I imagine?
[EN] Ah, if I say totally unexpected, then maybe I will be, you know, lying. But, ah, I was telling my wife that perhaps I may be one out of hundred, at this point. You know, because there had been some nominations, some activities beforehand. So that's the sort of level that I was expecting.
[AS] And, you're at Purdue. And, indeed you worked with Herbert Brown.
[EN] Exactly, yes.
[AS] So, he also, of course, was a Nobel Laureate. So there is a chain there.
[EN] Ah, definitely. Because, as you may know, another recipient, Akira Suzuki, is several years older than me, and he also was a post doctoral associate in Professor Brown's research group.
[AS] Indeed. And he of course continued the organoboron chemistry ...
[EN] Continued, but, I must say he ... what he has done has literally nothing to do with what Professor Brown has done. Expect that both dealt with organoboron compounds.
[AS] And, so did you overlap in the Brown laboratory?
[EN] No, no, we did not overlap. But, later, we became closer and closer!
[AS] Was Herbert Brown a very special mentor?
[EN] Very much so! He really ... In terms of research, he is my only mentor, research mentor. I have had other professors, but he taught me just about everything as to how to do research.
[AS] What did you learn from him?
[EN] Well, I must say, true way of doing research.
[AS] What is the true way of doing research? Can you encapsulate it?
[EN] Well, so, in many ways, when you pick your subject, or target, or whatever, then we dig out the truth. But, in reality, nobody knows what the truth is. So, we try to do many things to make sure that what we dig out is true. And, many people, in many other cases, people may fall short of that. That will lead to many confusions, of course. And, this search for truth, one finding will lead to another so there's this tremendous scope expanding, you know, in front of you. And, then we continue. So, one of the things that he liked to say is ‘a little acorn grow into a tall oak'. And, indeed, that's the mode of our explorations. And, I believe, we some of us, have learned this and how to do it, from him.
[AS] Yes, well, that certainly seems to be the case with palladium catalyzed coupling. It's very interesting to hear the reference to truth, because often when one talks about synthetic organic chemistry, one talks about the development of new methods to make new molecules. And, the question of exploring truth, or nature's truth, doesn't really get discussed. But, that's a fascinating way of looking at it.
[EN] Uh-hmm. So, I was just engaged in a along conversation a moment ago, but, you know, organic chemists focus their attention only on so-called organic elements. There are about ten or a dozen: Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Halogens, and so on. And, then, of course, we all know that there are a hundred, hundred elements available to us. And, so, one of the dreams that we have turned into reality is to make good use of about fifty others. All the others are so-called metals. And, we ... One of our findings is that metals are truly reactive, useful elements at least for synthesis. And, especially transition metals, especially so called D-Block transition metals, about half of the transition metals.
So, along this line, actually your Committee, the Nobel Committee, has awarded three times in the last ten years. First in 2001, to Noyori, Sharpless and, ah, what's the name of the third one. I forgot. And then, what was it 2005 to Grubbs, Schrock and Chauvin. And, now, us three. So, nine of us, actually, are in general area of transition metal catalysis. And, this has been less vaguely, or less well recognized principle. Transition metals can catalyze so many different organic transformations. And, we believe ... you know between, Akira and myself and then probably ten or more others, luckily have come up with one of the most versatile, one of the most widely applicable methods for synthesizing ... yeah, ok, so!
[AS] Yeah, yes, yes indeed. And, when one thinks of the currently available methods to synthesize new molecules, do you think that we are in the position of being able to do what we want, or is there much more to be discovered. Are we ...
[EN] Obviously, much more to be discovered. For instance, asymmetric synthesis, where Noyori and Sharpless and others made a significant contribution, is still in its, I shouldn't say infancy, but in its youth.
So, when it comes to how we control detailed stereo chemistry, the synthetic community, or we all, are still struggling a lot. And that will hinder the progress in drug synthesis and so on. Many things are still extremely difficult and it only started twenty, thirty, forty years ago, but it was probably first recognized in 2001. And, I would imagine that more will be recognized. But, definitely more needs to be done!
[AS] And, do you think that transition metals will be the sort of leading front?
[EN] I have no doubt about that.
[EN] So, this thing goes back to Hoffman, you know Roald Hoffman who won the Nobel Prize in 1980 or 81, Woodward, of course, and then, in UK, Dewar, who did not win, but these chemists (Oh, Fukui, Fukui in Japan, also won the Prize with Hoffman), they told us. But, few people fully understood the true meaning of this magical thing that the transition metals offer us.
But of course many of us eventually understood. And, the names that I just mentioned earlier, including Noyori, Sharpless and Grubbs and Schrock and us all, we are now, or at least I am, in awe of the power of transition metals. And there is a very, very simple – it's based on a very simple principle which we, the chemists, should all know. But, my guess is that, at the moment, it is even to most chemists ‘black magic'! That's what they use, as a phrase!
[AS] And, for the non chemist, can you encapsulate the simple principle?
[EN] Ah! Simple principle is ... I call this one the magic of combination of empty orbital and filled, non-bonding, but filled orbital. Of course, this combination, you know we need Lewis acidic compounds, but more, we have a term carbinoydal, carbene. And carbenes provide simultaneously empty and filled non-bonding orbitals. But carbenes are, you know, very fleeting species.
But transition metals, with the transition metals we can have highly reactive, yet stable, even commercially available, compounds with this fundamental property. Which Dewer reported in the early 1950s. Fukui, I understand, was doing this during the World War II! And, then of course, Woodward and Hoffman popularized in organic area this concept of frontier orbital theory, HOMO / LUMO theory. And some of us, many of us, recognized this, including all nine of us I suppose, perhaps in the late 60s and early 70s. And, I believe, those have propelled us to the current level and I think it is continuing.
So, there is basic principle, or story, I think is very, very clear.
[AS] Right, it just needs recruits to champion the principle.
[AS] May I ask you a last question, a bit of a strange question, but as a synthetic organic chemist, do you think you were born - or organometalic chemist - do you think you were born at the right time? Has this been the perfect time to be practicing your art?
[EN] I believe so! Someone, one of the very famous chemists, I believe he himself has been, I'm sure, a candidate for this Nobel Prize, said in around 1970, forty years ago, 'organometalic chemistry ...' Yes?
[EN] So, he said that this field is already on its way down. But I believe, looking back, that he was too futuristic. And, I think the next three decades maybe, that was a period of major growth.
[AS] I suppose things always take longer than one thinks.
[EN] Yeah! I believe so! And, I, myself, believe that my mission is probably half way through. But, I don't think that I have the time for the other half.
[AS] Will the award of the Nobel Prize help make things happen faster?
[EN] I hope so! I hope so. But I, you know, I have to be well aware of my own age. Age factor, of course, you know everybody's subject to that!
[AS] And, I suppose also aware of the danger of having your time taken up by having to speak to people on the telephone like me.
[EN] Well, that's just today! I have with me a couple of other people waiting!
[AS] I can well imagine. So, I shall let you get on, and I hope at some point you have the chance to..
[EN] Well, I think what you're doing is very important and coming from Sweden, you know, I very much appreciate it!
[AS] Well, thank you. When you come to Stockholm to receive your award we will have the chance to speak at greater length.
[EN] My pleasure.
[AS] Thank you. Ok, well, enjoy the rest of your day and thank you for speaking to us.
[EN] Yeah, thank you very much!
[AS] Bye, bye.