Transcript from an interview with Jerome Karle, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 1985, at the 55th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2005. Interviewer is freelance journalist Marika Griehsel.
Thank you for coming to this interview, professor. I just wanted to ask you first of all, I believe this year, which is the year 2005, it’s the year of Einstein and people are trying to commemorate and trying to make the general public understand more about science. Do you think that it’s important that we highlight our genius, the geniuses that we have, who have been with us and those we have around us still?
Jerome Karle: Yes, I believe that it’s an excellent idea. Einstein was very special. He saw and understood things that really revolutionised the understanding of what the scientific world was all about 100 years ago. He changed things. It took something of the order of 40 years of various people, good scientists, trying to find out whether he was right or not, and trying to find out what they could do with it. And they finally ended up with some very important practical applications. Now the thing about Einstein was that he did things like that all his life. And when scientific developments come into a person’s head which are then passed on to others to think about, to work on, to develop, and if that comes or occurs time after time, then you have an example of true genius.
Is it important for the scientific world to be able to have people that one could relate to the general public, to make us understand how important science is for the development?
Jerome Karle: I think that that’s very important because, in effect, the public generally, through their governments, need to support. I think that life would be very difficult for scientists if they irritated the public. No, but I think that the public understands. For example, with respect to medical questions, they don’t relate generally to esoteric science, but they can certainly understand when there are new developments and understandings that will be able to make life safer and better for them.
In your personal life, in which way did it change after you received the Nobel Prize?
Jerome Karle: I don’t readily change very much. There was a fun part. For example, since my institution is a governmental institution, the President of the United States called me up and we had a nice chat for a while. The fun part was not only the telephone call but he invited me and my wife to come to some of the big dinners that were held at the White House and that sort of thing. So it was an opportunity to see things that generally speaking you’d never see.
That must have been great. I believe that you have worked with your wife for many years and she’s been very much part of your research and studies. Can you tell us a bit about the partnership that you two have?
Jerome Karle: What we did was that we continued a research problem that we had worked on when we were getting our PHD degrees. And we worked very closely on that. She is extremely bright and has all kinds of honours – in fact probably if one went down the list and so forth, she would have more honorary degrees and prizes and so forth – but she didn’t receive the Nobel Prize, which astonished me, because we co-worked on that together.
Do you think she should have had it as well, together with you?
Jerome Karle: Absolutely. And in fact one of the professors in Sweden who was responsible for the Nobel Prize was very outspoken about it and he did something which is never done and that is, after you receive the Nobel Prize you’re expected to visit universities in Norway and Sweden and give lectures. And he fixed it up so that she would accompany me and give her own lectures.
I read that you were part of working on the atom bomb.
Jerome Karle: Yes.
And your wife as well I believe then, during …
Jerome Karle: She did, too, yes.
In general, afterwards, when you thought about that work, do you think you as a scientist have a responsibility for what you are creating, so to speak, if you look at the long term, the way the politicians and so on use the creations?
Jerome Karle: Yes. I have a story about that. I worked at the University of Chicago. They had a special set up there. There were – oh, I don’t know – six or eight major places around the United States working on this problem. And I can tell you that at one time, after it seemed as if we were succeeding in making what we needed to make, we wrote a letter to the President and asked him to please not be the first one to use it. And we thought that was settled. But, as you know, that didn’t happen. And that was always a source of discomfort to me.
Do you think today that too much research …? I mean you’re still working and I know that a lot of scientific research is being brought in to the military machine, not just in the United States, all over the world. Is it OK that so much money still is being spent on military research? Whether one could maybe do it more on other issues – or do they go hand in hand? Does it have to be like this?
Jerome Karle: I can only speak for myself. For myself, I certainly wish that it would have stopped a long time ago. But there’s another issue that’s close to it and that is the issue of trying to get everybody to agree to stop. I don’t know how to feel about it. Certainly let’s not build it up any more. But I’m not so sure about destroying it at this point.
No, of course that is an issue that comes up very frequently. But if we look more at the joy of working with scientific issues and the way you and your wife are still working – you are now more than 80 years old and that’s fantastic. You told me you still go in to work every day.
Jerome Karle: Yes.
That must be fantastic and great for the people that you’re working with.
Jerome Karle: Yes, and they’re great people. That’s another wonderful thing about it. They make their contributions. I’m not just the one who contributes or gets the big ideas and so forth. My colleagues, who are somewhat younger than me, are very bright and very clever and very good scientists. So we do new things. We don’t do things that we’ve found out how to do. We just keep doing newer things. And at the present time we have some items going that we find to be extremely interesting, with great potential. And the potential is not harming anybody but maybe doing a lot of good, so far as health is concerned.
We started off with Einstein. You said what was so fantastic with him was that other scientific researchers and scientists could continue his work and prove it. Just to end on that note, is that what’s going on all the time – new ideas but you can also pick up old research, or so-called old research, and continue it?
Jerome Karle: Yes.
So to those young students that are looking to become professors eventually, there must be an endless amount of work still to be done?
Jerome Karle: Oh yes.
Is that so?
Jerome Karle: Oh yeah. It’s a great business.
Great. Thank you very much.
Jerome Karle: You’re welcome.
Interview with Dr. Jerome Karle by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 55th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2005.
Dr. Karle talks about 2005 as the ‘Einstein year’; the Nobel Prize and his working partnership with his wife (3:42); scientists’ responsibilities for what they create (6:30); and about his work today (9:09).
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