William Lipscomb


Interview, December 2001

Interview with Professor William N. Lipscomb by Joanna Rose, science writer, 3 December 2001.

Professor Lipscomb talks about how the directions of his research abruptly changed in 1964; how to get confidence in ideas that nobody believes in (3:38); why music is a very important part of his life (5:50); and how a chemistry set for kids made him enter science (10:02). He also gives some advice to young students (11:33).

Interview transcript

Welcome to this interview, Professor William Lipscomb. You were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 25 years ago and it’s quite a long time, and I suppose that you have a long perspective on your field, and I wonder first if the Nobel Prize has changed the path of your life.

William Lipscomb: Well, I didn’t stop research, as some Nobel Prize winners do, I kept going. The direction of my research changed fairly abruptly though, not because of the award of the Nobel Prize but in 1964, the National Science Foundation, the inorganic branch, decided that I wasn’t going anywhere and they cut off all my research and I had already began to be interested in chemistry towards the biological side as well as in inorganic chemistry and so I was therefore required to change my field.

I understand. Were you of the same opinion in ’64 that the field is finished now and I have to move?

William Lipscomb: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. The field has grown enormously. The field of structure and bonding, and how atoms are held together to make chemical compounds has received a great deal of work and understanding and extended particularly towards how the molecules react, how they transform to other species, and even in recent years there has been a great transformation of computational chemistry and theoretical chemistry which allows one to predict structures, to guess reactions, almost predict reactions, so I think that will continue to improve.

What does it mean for our understanding of nature, that you can understand how material is structured on this level?

William Lipscomb: The problem is how do molecules react, because if you want to transform a molecule into something useful or something that you’re interested in, it helps a lot to have the structure because you can tell where the reactivity parts are, where you can change the molecule most easily, especially if you know the structure and then if you know how the charges on the atoms change. You can then make predictions about the reactions and do the transformations that previously were only trial and error. Now you can, with a purpose. That means you can explore much more complex systems, much more complex reactions.

How do you get this kind of self-confidence that you can believe that my interpretation and my idea is right? Even if everybody around you says no it must wrong.

William Lipscomb: Well, in order to make one of these kind of discoveries, you have to have read a lot, you have to know a lot and you have to suddenly, or maybe not suddenly, but gradually see something that’s different, that is implied or something that’s wrong, as I did in the case of the hydrides, I perceived it was wrong, but you then have to criticise it yourself before you test it or present it and as your confidence grows – it may take a long time, it may take 10 minutes, it may take years to develop your own confidence in these things – and sometimes you are wrong.

What is bad is to publish something that’s not very interesting …

It’s very important, that I learned from Linus Pauling, that it’s not a disgrace in science to publish something that’s wrong. What is bad is to publish something that’s not very interesting and so I learned from him that you really, he said once to me: It’s not what you can look up somewhere that counts, it’s what you really know that counts and if you know that, then that’s the basis for your discovery, and you won’t be shaken out of it if you have developed a certain amount of confidence and if you make some discoveries, then you can go on to make others and that is a criterion that we really believe that people who are creative remain creative. Now sometimes they don’t change areas, sometimes they are refining what they did earlier, but they’re still being creative.

I would like to ask you about something else. Besides being a chemist, you are also a performing musician.

William Lipscomb: Yes.

What instrument do you play?

William Lipscomb: I play the clarinet.

Yes, and what kind of music?

William Lipscomb: It’s mainly classical music and it’s mainly chamber music. You see, my mother taught me of the voice; my sister was a composer. She studied with Mademoiselle Boulanger, the famous teacher of composers, so there’s a lot of music in the family and I found it a very important part of my life.

Yes. Why?

… if you are playing chamber music, it’s not possible to think about chemistry …

William Lipscomb: Because there are two things – one is that I sometimes get too wound up in my chemistry, but if you are playing chamber music, it’s not possible to think about chemistry. You’re too busy and so it was a diversion. But it was much more than that because playing music, even if it’s written, is still a creative art because the notes have to be phrased properly and the structure of the piece you have to imagine yourself and sometimes it’s different from what the composer meant, but you are creating things there and it’s the same kind of creative processes that we use in science. The scientific method, as people usually think of it, is not such an orderly process.

No. What is it?

William Lipscomb: Well, it’s a conjecture, or our guess, and then you set about first to test it to see whether it’s right and then you set out to prove it’s wrong and these are the processes but getting the original idea is something that involves your intuition. It isn’t so explicit and it isn’t the usual scientific method that people think about.

Well, one of your PhD students, actually the first one – Roald Hoffman – that you named before, also another prize winner, he wrote that one thing is certainly not true, namely that scientists have some greater insight in the workings of nature than artists.

William Lipscomb: That’s right, that’s right. And he knows that too because he is a poet and also a playwright now in addition to his science, he continues his science, Roald Hoffman, but he knows this kind of area but it’s really quite true. I think the intuitive processes of discovery are the same, very much the same in the arts as in the sciences.

But what kind of knowledge about nature you can get from arts?

William Lipscomb: From art?

Yes. Can you do it?

William Lipscomb: The artist must ask you to think of the world in a different way, and sometimes it’s a more abstract way, sometimes it’s a completely different kind of colouring. Sometimes it’s a very nice balance thing and sometimes it’s very disorganised but it’s a business of an artist to tell you something that’s different about what you see and what you feel, but this is true of science. A discovery in science is something which, if you know it, nobody else knows it if it’s yours and you have to show how it is and especially if it’s a very nice discovery, an important discovery. The first thing that happens is people will say, oh it’s wrong, no, it’s all been done before, it’s not worth doing. You know, when you hear that, then you say, oh I might have discovered something very interesting.

If we go back in time to the start of your career, what made you enter science in general?

When I was 11 years old, my mother bought me one of those chemistry sets …

William Lipscomb: When I was 11 years old, my mother bought me one of those chemistry sets and I stayed with it. My father was a doctor. I went to the drug store to buy chemicals to enlarge the set, to get other chemicals, and I had some very dangerous ones that you cannot buy now because of the regulations and I did all my experiments at home. When I came to high school two things happened. One is the instructor said: Yes you can take chemistry but you already know enough. All you have to do is show up for the final examination, you don’t have to do anything else.

So I did some research and the second aspect is that when I left the high school, I graduated, I gave my chemistry set to my high school. It more than doubled what they had already, as I had a pretty big set, so I was very interested in chemistry from very early days. And I tried to imagine how the molecules were really behaving in terms of structure and so on.

What do you think of students, that they’re coming to science now, to the university? What would you advise them to choose?

William Lipscomb: Oh, they should choose to study something they’re really interested in and then learn to do it well. That’s exactly what I encourage in one; somebody is working for me and says I want to work on something else, I say you do it. Whether it’s a different field, completely different field, or whether it’s a different development and for a rather small number of my very best students, I have allowed them or encouraged them to find their own research problems and take them with them themselves to their new positions, to get a jump on the tenure situation.

Oh I see, so the motivation is coming from inside.

William Lipscomb: Exactly. I try to have them ask what their motivation is, what they’re really interested in, what they would like to be doing some years from now and encourage them to do it.

At the same time, science has become a more and more collective enterprise but what you’re pointing out is that it depends on how creative you are as an individual if you’re making progress.

… you need to try to imagine what is going on …

William Lipscomb: Yes, that’s right because although you have collective, you have in my area, for example, doing protein structure work which is what I’m doing now to determine the structures of proteins and to try to figure out how enzymes speed up reactions by such large factors, that’s one of the things. Or how enzymes are regulated so they don’t run away with the metabolism on a molecular basis, that’s what I’m trying to do but there, I think, you need to try to imagine what is going on and you also need a fairly large group of people working to do all the things that need to be done.

It reaches its zenith in the case of the particle accelerators, the physicists who need very large amounts, but there’s some group of people who have to, or person who has to lead, who has to set the agenda to say what particles you’re going to work on, what enzymes are you going to study. It’s a very important choice and so I think that the role of individual thought is also present in these large group enterprises that you refer to.

This is the role of the leader.

William Lipscomb: The role of the leader, or the leader could be someone who is not the real leader, not the one who gets the money, but that may be the intellectual leader, maybe one of the students. It can be and it has happened.

So you can compare the leader of a research group to a conductor in an orchestra?

William Lipscomb: Oh yes. Yes, that’s an interesting comparison. A lot of people think the orchestra is playing and the conductor doesn’t do very much but the conductor’s the person that gives shape to the music, gets the phrasing, and if he has really fine musicians in solo spots, the question is does he try to help them phrase, or does he let them go? He just decides that on the spot, depending on the musicians, sometimes he’s in control, sometimes he lets them be in control and there are interesting times because there’s a big difference among conductors. Some are very easy to understand and play under and some are very difficult and it’s the same for research groups, I think.

Thank you very much for the interview.

William Lipscomb: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me here.

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MLA style: William Lipscomb – Interview. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Thu. 25 Jul 2024. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1976/lipscomb/interview/>

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