John B. Fenn


Interview, June 2005

Interview with Professor John B. Fenn by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 55th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2005.

Professor Fenn talks about what made him interested in science; his thoughts about education in science today (1:47); being awarded the Nobel Prize (6:02); the most important issues in science today (9:35); and his memories from the Nobel Week (12:45).

Interview transcript

Professor, thank you for seeing us today, we are very happy to meet you here in Lindau.

John B. Fenn: It is my pleasure.

What was it, maybe back in your childhood, that made you interested in science in specific?

John B. Fenn: Well my father was an electrical engineer and he was a very ingenious and handy fellow, he did lots of things. I had a brother who was three years younger and when I was about eight or something like that my parents bought The Book Of Knowledge which is a children’s encyclopaedia, 20 volumes or so. And I just was reading that all the time. I think I was educated by my experience of reading The Book Of Knowledge. And I know years later, when I dug it out to give to the next door neighbour’s children to look at, those books were pretty well worn and I must have spent an awful lot of time on it. So I have always been interested in science and things technical. And my dad subscribed to the Popular Science Monthly and Popular Mechanics and so I was exposed to technology and science all along and I just liked it.

I read a little bit and I realised that in the beginning of your working life you were not at all really interested in experiments or you thought it was a bit boring. And yet it has been very much a part of your life right through.

John B. Fenn: You say I was not interested in experiments?

I understand that there were some experiments in the beginning that you felt was boring.

John B. Fenn: Oh yes.

And you thought, you know, that is a sort of contradiction because it is really what you got the prize for eventually.

The students are rushed through this text book, so they do not like chemistry …

John B. Fenn: It was not as bad, for me, when I was really lamenting in that and made many comments about it and I thought maybe you were referring to that, that the way science is taught now I think is terrible. When I was taking introductory chemistry the text book was 300 pages. 20 years later the text book had grown to 700 pages. Today it is 1100 pages. The students are rushed through this text book, so they do not like chemistry. It is terrible the way it is done. The only reason they take chemistry is because they need it to get into medical school. This has happened in practically all university courses. I have not got it with me, I brought some reprints, I’ve given some of them away.

There was a wonderful article in the Science magazine, in 1963 and it was written by an applied mathematician who was in the electrical engineering department, Cornell university, and he wrote this page and a half article on what he thought was wrong with education these days. And it was right on the money. His underlying assumption is that the purpose of a university experience is to develop young peoples’ minds. To take the best brains from high school and make them work as well as possible. And he says that university is an aggregation of departments each concerned with a particular branch of knowledge. But, the primary objective of each of these departments should be the development of young peoples’ minds. Not to make them expert in their particular branch but to develop young peoples’ minds. And as he points out, there’s a fallacy that has grown up that has made things very bad because, it goes something like this, and I’ll take my own subject of chemistry. Because more chemistry is known now than was known 50 years ago.

The students have to learn more now than they did 50 years ago. And presumably 50 years from now they will have to learn still more. He says “The fallacy becomes apparent when you realise the students’ brain today is the same as it was 50 years ago and the same it will be 50 years from now.” What this proliferation of material and information does is give the instructor more material from which to select in fulfilling his primary purpose which is to develop young peoples’ minds. And this whole misconception has become dominant in education scenes now. And for example, I do not know of a single graduate department of chemistry in all of the united states that is not hurting for graduate students. Why? Because they are completely turned off the subject with their under graduate courses, 1135 pages?

When you were doing your research later and what eventually became the research you got the prize for you were in your 70’s or late 60’s.

John B. Fenn: Well when I got, let me see.

What I would like to understand is when you found out about this in your 60’s and 70’s and then you received the prize were you surprised? You said you had not believed it at all. But you knew it had a great impact on science.

John B. Fenn: Yes. I did not appreciate the extent at first. And then when everybody began to use it I began to wonder but I knew that I had been nominated for working molecular beams in fact. Because although you are not supposed to know sometimes people that nominate you will tell you they did. They do not tell anybody else but they will sometimes say “Yes, you know, I think may be you would like to know that I nominated you for the Nobel Prize.”

You might get a phone call in October or something like that.

John B. Fenn: And so I knew I had been nominated and in fact because so many people started using these free-jet beam techniques, I thought that if I ever did get an award like that it would be for that. And then that grew into this business of being able to determine the masses of these great big protein molecules by the same technique I’ve just been describing to you, and so I knew somebody had told me that he had nominated me for that. but, I thought yes that would be great but I did not really ever think it would happen.

… she said “John, telephone”, at five o’clock. And she said “It is Stockholm” …

And then that fateful morning came when you get the five o’clock telephone call, and I remember my wife hollered to me because she had the telephone and she said “John, telephone”, at five o’clock. And she said “It is Stockholm”. Well the day before they had awarded the Physics Prizes so I was aware that this was the time of year. And I picked up the phone and I said “Hello?” This very nice voice said “This is so and so calling from Stockholm, we just wanted to let you know that we have released to the newspapers that you are sharing the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and you can expect the telephone to start ringing in about 15 minutes.”

And so it did.

John B. Fenn: And you will never guess where the first telephone call came from.

I do not know, who was it?

John B. Fenn: Came from a little newspaper in backwards Brazil. Apparently some guy had been sitting up all night on the teletype listening and the thing came across the teletype and somehow he got my phone number and called me, he was the first one.

Fantastic. So did you life change a lot after that?

John B. Fenn: Oh God yes. The telephone did not stop ringing for the next month it seemed like. And we are a publicity conscious society, you know, you get your name in the papers and then everybody wants you to do this that and other things. And so you get invitations to everywhere. I think I told you I was away from home 100 nights in the first year after I got it.

When you now get to talk to students what kind of message would you like to relay to them? What is the most important?

Forget about your text books, science is fun …

John B. Fenn: Forget about your text books, science is fun! The text books are terrible.

In which fields do you believe that there will be major breakthroughs in the future? What are the most important issues?

John B. Fenn: Of course there are all kinds of technological problems that are important. I mean, what are we going to do about the warming of the atmosphere? We understand what causes it but we are too bloody stupid to do what is necessary to stop it. The idea that everybody has to have a car and that there is no speed limit and they make these SUV’s. It takes 20 times as much fuel to haul a tonne of freight a mile in a truck as it does in a train.

And yet we subsidise the trucking industry by building these roads which they don’t pay for and even they don’t pay for the damage they do to them because the damage to the road by traffic goes up with the cube of the mass of the traffic. So a truck does a tremendous amount more damage to a highway than a car does. And we should put a tax on the fuel so that the trucks will be on a par with the trains. Because the railroads have to maintain the road. Our politics are all crazy. Too many special interests are controlling what is done and it is not in the best interest of the people.

Do you feel hopeful that we could change it around?

John B. Fenn: The only hope is education.

Good teachers.

John B. Fenn: Good teachers. And a real belief and commitment because most people don’t believe in it. The only reason people send their children to college, you see what we have done not really as deliberately as it might seem, but we have transformed education into vocational training. You ask the average student, why are you going to college? So I get a better job. And ask their parents. Why are you sending your child to college? So he can get a better job. That is entirely the wrong emphasis. They ought to go to college to get educated. To learn how to think. To know what other people have thought.

So they learn. Their continuation of what we have learned, we build on the knowledge that is already there.

John B. Fenn: That is correct. And I say, nobody studied graduate work in chemistry, well most of our students come from abroad because none of the Americans want to. The only reason they take chemistry is because a lot of them want to go to medical school because they think they’ll make big money as doctors and you have got to have chemistry to get into medical school. Now that is a hell of a way to run a railroad as far as I am concerned.

Any memories from Stockholm? I know that you were sick during the time, but before you got sick.

… every Laureate is allowed twelve guests and I had three children and five grandchildren …

John B. Fenn: It was wonderful. I even enjoyed being sick there. I mean the hospital people were very nice. And I had a problem. You know every Laureate is allowed twelve guests and I had three children and five grandchildren. And then I had the students that had done the work, and so how to select the guests that I was entitled to. Well I finally had a brain storm and I said to my grand children, “Look you can take your choice, I will give you a cash settlement or you can go to Stockholm”. And only two of them went to Stockholm. The other took the cash settlement so that let me get the students in.

Thank you very much Professor for talking to us, I really enjoyed that. Thank you.

John B. Fenn: I enjoyed it. I get a little embarrassed talking about I myself, me, me, me all the time …

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