Transcript from an interview with the 2005 chemistry laureates

Interview with the 2005 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry Robert H. Grubbs and Richard R. Schrock, by Joanna Rose, science writer, 6 December 2005, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

Dr Grubbs and Dr Schrock, my congratulations to the Nobel Prize and welcome to this interview and to Stockholm.

Richard Schrock: Thank you.

Two months have gone since you got the message from Stockholm, what happened during this time, Dr Grubbs?

Robert Grubbs: It seems like it’s been a very long time, many things have happened with many interviews and many events. The other fun thing has been many people who I’ve lost track with over the years have gotten back in touch with me, and so we’ve re-established a lot of friendships which we’ve lost over the years.

And the message caught you in New Zealand actually?

Robert Grubbs: New Zealand, yes.

In the middle of the night?

Robert Grubbs: Yes, late in the evening I was …

Richard Schrock: 12:30 or something, right?

Robert Grubbs: Yes, it was 10:30 at night.

Richard Schrock: 10:30 at night?

Robert Grubbs: Yes, so there were the crazy time changes, so yes. I was there on a fellowship teaching a course, so I came back from a trip and then the call came and I taught my course the next morning, so we finished up.

I see. Maybe it was worse in the States, you got that call in the morning?

Richard Schrock: 5:30.

5:30, well that’s …

Richard Schrock: I was up having breakfast, coffee, I usually get up at 5 or 5:30.

I see, and go to work that early? Before all your students come?

Richard Schrock: No, I don’t go to work, I catch up on e-mails and do some work on a paper or whatever, and then go in after the traffic at 9 or 9:30.

And what happened after this call? The first one?

Richard Schrock: After the call a lot of things happened, people started turning up with cameras and my neighbour came over and the telephone started ringing and finally I had to take it off the hook because it was ringing constantly, as soon as I would put it down it would ring. Many people were having their automatic diallers dial my phone number.

Could you pursue your work after that?

Robert Grubbs: Yes, it changed a bit but not much. I did return back to California and started teaching a course there and I’ve kept my research group going and written papers and so life goes on. It just adds a few extra things.

I see, so now you are back on the track, the life is like normal.

Robert Grubbs: Well, not totally normal, no, no.

Richard Schrock: Ah, I wouldn’t say normal.

Robert Grubbs: Not normal but…! But yes.

How did you become involved in science if you go back?

Robert Grubbs: For me it was probably goes back to a teacher in junior high, middle school, who was an outstanding teacher and who started challenging me and getting me interested in science, and so it continued from there. It took many different variations along the way until I arrived at chemistry, but it was still always a science emphasis.

And you dr Schrock?

Richard Schrock: I’ve always been curious about things and interested in making things and I still work a lot with my hands in wood working and so on. When I was maybe eight years old, my second oldest brother Ted gave me what we call the proverbial chemistry set and so that got me interested in chemistry. I decided to channel my efforts in that direction and never really changed, I kept with chemistry more or less.

Some dangerous thing to get, the chemistry set, to put it in the hands of a child.

Richard Schrock: Back then they were pretty good things, yes, a lot of stuff in it.

No accidents?

Richard Schrock: I wouldn’t say no actually, but I have all my fingers and toes.

Robert Grubbs: That’s why it keeps you in chemistry is the explosions, the accidents.

Are you the kind of nerds that do just nothing but science?

Robert Grubbs: I don’t know about that, we do many things. I know Dick has many hobbies as do I, other than chemistry.

Yes like?

Robert Grubbs: It changes over the years. From early days I was active in sports and then rock climbing and more recently just walking as I’ve gotten older. And also wood working and building and construction, so I’ve done all those things too.

Did you do walking in New Zealand?

Robert Grubbs: I did walking yes, that was a part of the reason I went to New Zealand, was to walk, I didn’t walk as much I’d like but it was still very good.

Because of the message or …?

Robert Grubbs: Partially, and because also the weather was very snowy and wet. So we had one really good walk in the snow which for a southern Californian boy is an interesting thing.

I see. And what do you do besides science?

Richard Schrock: I used to play sports, not seriously, just casually, and I still do physical exercise but I do wood working, my father was a carpenter and so I have a big wood working shop in my basement, it gets bigger and bigger as my sons leave and so on. I love to cook, I like to listen to music, I don’t play any instrument but I like to take pictures again and, you know, quite a few things, I would say my most serious hobby is wood working.

Maybe you can tell us more about the discovery? I know that Dr Chauvin made the discovery first and very early, and then it took like two decades almost until you came with a new idea.

Richard Schrock: Maybe you’d better tell that one, Robert.

Robert Grubbs: That was pretty early on yes.

Richard Schrock: He was involved in a lot of the early stage.

Robert Grubbs: I was involved in it earlier.

Richard Schrock: Quite crowded there for a while.

Robert Grubbs: Yes, so it was a … I mean the reaction was discovered in the 1960’s as an accident, and the real question was … I learned about in when I was a post doc in 1967, -68, -69 time frame. The reaction was quite new, and no-one had any idea how it happened, and so that was what really attracted me to it was trying to understand how this crazy reaction happened. We started doing some experiments and then there were a lot of different mechanisms proposed to how the reaction takes place and we were trying to sort those out, and Chauvin proposed the mechanism which was consistent with some data, and so we were involved in developing some of the mechanistic studies, labelling studies which demonstrated that his mechanism was probably the right one, along with Katz and a few other people. Then that really set the definition for what the catalyst needed to be, and then we started working for years, Fred Tebbe, who you worked with made some catalysts that worked, not very well, but we started using those as model studies and then Dick developed some catalysts that were really outstanding catalysts, and they did a lot of things, and we started working with those. Then we were lucky to find another different direction to go in with different kinds of metals and ended up making another catalyst which now has been moving along very rapidly. But there really wasn’t a discovery, it’s been a situation of changes and additions and …

Slow work.

Robert Grubbs: Slow work and finding something and then pointing it in a new direction and then following that direction until something changes and then you go in the next direction.

And you never give up.

Robert Grubbs: You shouldn’t give up, no, still working hard. Still lots of problems to solve.

On the same reaction?

Robert Grubbs: The same reaction, still lots of problems to solve, yes.

And do you remember how you got the idea? It was also the slow work…

Richard Schrock: In my case I was at DuPont, so for three years, from 1972-75, about the time that Bob and Chauvin and others were investigating the mechanism. I discovered a kind of compound that had this new ligand in it, this new linkage that was part of the Chauvin mechanism, although at that time I don’t think I really knew about the Chauvin paper because that wasn’t known for some time, I think exactly who was first …

Was it in French or …

Robert Grubbs: It was in French yes.

Is this the obstacle? That it was in French?

Robert Grubbs: It was in French and it wasn’t …

Richard Schrock: What journal was it in?

Robert Grubbs: It was in a polymer journal which …

Richard Schrock: Polymer, right.

Robert Grubbs: … a lot of people didn’t read, so it was some time before …

Richard Schrock: See, we’re basically organometallic chemists, he’s an organic chemist, not an inorganic chemist, and Chauvin is a polymer chemist, so he published in French, polymer …


Richard Schrock: … journals that we didn’t read every day.

Robert Grubbs: A lot of people didn’t read it, in fact someone else sort of rediscovered what he discovered later, but anyway.

Richard Schrock: I was at DuPont and I was doing tantalum chemistry which is one of the metals right next door to the ones that work well, or that first worked well, molybdenum and tungsten, and it turned out that I made a type of compound that was different, it had this required linkage in it. I thought maybe it’s possible that this one would have something to do with this crazy new reaction, and so it took about I guess 1980 was the year that I started to put it all together I would say, so that’s about six years later, after I moved to MIT in 1975. But tantalum, it works out, is not what I call a classical catalyst, it’s not something that makes this thing easily, you have to work at it very hard, but molybdenum and tungsten we found out what was the right combination and then we could make, again by designing, something that’s stable and will do the reaction very rapidly and do everything that Chauvin said it should do, make these intermediates and we could get structures of them and so on. And then we could continue to refine the catalysts and move ahead. There is another part of this chemistry that was not actually mentioned, usually, in the Nobel Prize statements and that is there is a triple bond version called alkyne metathesis which is very closely related, and we discovered that similar compounds will actually, could be made that would do that reaction.

Robert Grubbs: What year did you come to Caltech?

Richard Schrock: -86.

Robert Grubbs: -86, okay.

Richard Schrock: We published one paper …

Robert Grubbs: One paper together yes, in ‘86, on tantalum.

Richard Schrock: No, it was tungsten. The first tungsten catalyst.

Robert Grubbs: Okay, that’s right.

Richard Schrock: I would say was the modern one, they say 1990, but actually it was 1986, was the one that I actually brought to Caltech and we made some polymers and we proved that it did what it’s supposed to do, and so that was the one and only paper that we published together.

Did you start to work together then? Or you knew each other before?

Robert Grubbs: We knew each other long before.

Richard Schrock: We knew each other since the early 1970s I would say.

Robert Grubbs: Early -70’s, yes.

Because you work in the same field?

Robert Grubbs: The same field, work in the same field, go to the same meetings. I remember the first basketball game we played together. I still have a scar I think from that game.

At the conference or…?

Robert Grubbs: It was a conference, that’s right yes.

So this is what you do at conferences?

Robert Grubbs: Yes, we decided we should never do that again.

Richard Schrock: So Bob did do a lot of further studies with these and similar molybdenum catalysts. I made more variations probably, since I’m an inorganic chemist, so I work more with making and designing catalysts and Bob with applying that chemistry to make polymers, and then really set his sights on organic chemistry. He was the first to really see the possibilities, since he’s an organic chemist, that one could influence organic chemistry powerfully.

But you worked in the industry?

Richard Schrock: Just for three years.

For three years.

Richard Schrock: Yes, from 1975, so for 30 years I’ve been at MIT.

What is the relation between applied science and fundamental science? Can you comment on that?

Robert Grubbs: I think they naturally sort of flow together, at least for me it’s been. We started out doing very fundamental work, we still do very fundamental work, but you also have to keep an eye for where it might be useful and then point it in that direction. Then once you get it going in the right direction there’s lots of people who will take that then and use it to make things and do the applied stuff. I try to do the fundamental and then point people in the direction that the applied stuff can happen and then there’s all kinds of wonderful people around who takes that and does nice things with it.

Richard Schrock: And the main idea is to control these catalysts and what they do and then you control it by making different catalysts and you know everything about them in a fundamental way, and then you can apply that knowledge to making a polymer of a certain type or doing a certain type of organic reaction. Then you can apply what you know with these catalysts, but it all begins with fundamentals.

Yes, but in the 1970’s there were lots of research laboratories in the industry, it’s not so many nowadays.

Robert Grubbs: It’s getting much harder.

Richard Schrock: They’re almost gone, I would say there’s nothing even close to what DuPont was, for example.


Robert Grubbs: I mean DuPont was an amazing place.

In what way?

Robert Grubbs: It was like an academic laboratory.

Richard Schrock: Fundamental research.

Robert Grubbs: For fundamental research and that’s all gone. In fact there’s almost no real fundamental industrial labs any more. In one sense that’s okay because the universities are there to do the fundamental work. I think the problem now is the transition work, it’s that in the past, if you did fundamental work there was then someone in the company who had the understanding of the fundamental work and could do the transition part which then got it to the applied edge. That part seems to be missing now, and so we’re working really hard to try to come up with ways so that one can go from an academic laboratory and then get through this missing piece to the industrial part. And what’s happening now is that small companies are starting to fill in that gap.

And they are started by academics?

Robert Grubbs: In many cases by academics yes.

Richard Schrock: Like him for example.

Yes. That’s another sort of job, I would say.

Robert Grubbs: It’s another sort of job but if you do it right it’s a very fun job and not so difficult, if you find the right people to do that transition work.

So you work with a company and in academia?

Robert Grubbs: Yes. My job is in academia, but part of getting the technology, the fundamental stuff, we’ve developed two applications which after all one loves to see your stuff used and done. It was essential to build up this middle part and the only way to do that is to be involved in starting a company that is involved in that transition work. I tried doing it lots of other ways but it’s the only real way that I found to do it now. Dick’s also involved in the company too.

Richard Schrock: Yes, but not to such an extent. But they’re trying to get all of metathesis under their roof, I would say, and push it, which is good. And they will try to apply this reaction for pharmaceutical companies or for whoever wants to use it because it’s so universal in the sense that you can go in many directions. It’s a fundamental reaction, you can do many different things with it, and many companies might see some reaction that they could do in fact, and then they would license for example the possibility to do that from this company.

Robert Grubbs: But you need someone there who, as I say, that middle piece is missing, I mean for example DuPont used to do a lot of the fundamental work but they also could do the transition into the very applied stuff. But that’s all missing now. So I think that’s going to be the next generation of the way the technology develops.

There is also a question on going another way. How do you get information about what are the problems in the industry to solve in academia?

Robert Grubbs: Yes, that’s hard, but you don’t have to do that. What I’m finding now is that if you generally go around and you talk about the fundamentals, you talk about the places where the chemistry can be applied. The places where industrial chemists find applications always astounds me, you know, it becomes important and commercially viable, not for some fundamental chemical reason but for some small business reason which I have no idea about. It’s just been really fascinating to watch this happen, and there’s no way you can predict it or even think about it, and so you just put the science out there and get it to the point where people can understand it and use it and then they just find amazing applications.

There is one point on the road there that when science needs to become not so open as it’s used, we need to get patents and then you have to be secret about …

Richard Schrock: This is tricky and a question I often get is how is the chemistry used? What is being done with it exactly? Bob knows more than I do, but I don’t know because of this fact, and even people at materia may not know what exactly their catalyst’s being used for because naturally they want to keep it quiet…

It’s the company’s secrets.

Richard Schrock: Companies do not want you to know too much.

Robert Grubbs: Yes, and I know a lot I can’t talk about, but on the other hand I mean a lot of it is still getting to be known and the information does get out. At the academic side there was a change about seven or eight years ago which changed the way one could work. In the days before then you had to have a patent written and out before you could publish, and then the US patent office, and I think It’s now going around the world, is a thing called the provisional patent. This allows you then to basically claim an area without having a formal patent written, and then you have up to a year to write the formal patent, so that gives you a, as an academic that’s really been liberating in terms of how one can do patenting as well as publication, because in the end what we have to do is publish.

Yes. There are some other changes in science that maybe are more bothering, about how the public view science today compared with even ten years ago.

Richard Schrock: That’s hard.

Robert Grubbs: Yes, I’ll let you take that.

Richard Schrock: I think the public is as, the general public, it depends on the country I would say, but it’s lost the faith in science that we once had. After World War II and Sputnik of course, that created a stage for science and people looked to science to solve many problems, and now they’ve become maybe a little jaded as we would say, a little too accustomed to what progress we’ve made and they no longer have maybe the confidence in science, I think, that we had at that time for sure.

Robert Grubbs: Sputnik was the one that for, that was what changed the life in the US in terms of science, and at least in my generation, I was in high school when Sputnik went up and I remember precisely that, and it really paved the way for me to go into science and go through science, so that was important, but that’s getting harder and harder. I think as Dick said there’s a lot of faith being lost, there’s no at least in the US attitudes that are very non-scientific that are becoming prevalent, that are being supported at levels which make it difficult for science in many ways.

Who’s to blame for that? If you blame anything. Is it school systems?

Robert Grubbs: I don’t know, it’s really been frightening the last few years to watch the change happen.

Can you see it with your students? People who come to the universities?

Robert Grubbs: I don’t, not in our students, I mean we’re both at institutes of technology which have probably the two highest standards for admission in the US and so our students come in interested in science, wanting to do science, and so for our students that we work with everyday it’s not an issue. It’s outside of that group you see it.

Richard Schrock: And you see it through the funding agencies and the money they get which has, fortunately this year I think increased, but there have been some difficult years, and well, the government statements, our government and any government has positions, and sometimes they are not, shall we say, scientifically what we would like them to be. And that’s something that is very visible and it’s very distressing to see things said that are just not true or certainly debatable at best.

Robert Grubbs: The other thing is when we started out there was a great emphasis on doing fundamental science and over the last number of years … it’s not a bad thing but it’s a different thing, which is that even at the agencies that support fundamental work one has to say where this can be used, the applied end, and see it, and if we’d been starting out that way we’d have never started our work because there was no way in the world one could have imagined where this would go, it was just a fascinating reaction to look at.

Richard Schrock: And now you have to say how is this going to benefit mankind before you even know basically what you are going to discover or develop. We know now what this reaction has done but you cannot predict the future, and to say where it’s going to actually benefit mankind at a point where it’s fundamental research is impossible really.

Robert Grubbs: I mean after 35 years now working on this reaction I still get shocked very often about new thing it can do and new directions it would go in, so it’s a … I hope it stays for a few more years.

It’s fantastic, yes, and it’s just started with a happy end I would say, even if it’s not the end yet.

Robert Grubbs: Not the end yet no, I keep saying I have a few more years before I retire so I’ve got a lot more things to do.

Yes, I look forward to seeing what happens. Thank you very much.

Richard Schrock: We’re both young, we’re both young.

Thank you for the interview, and I hope you have a great time in Stockholm now.

Robert Grubbs: Thank you, thanks.

Richard Schrock: I’m sure we will.

Robert Grubbs: I’m sure we will yes.

Richard Schrock: Thank you.

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