Interview with the 2007 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Gerhard Ertl, 6 December 2007. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
Gerhard Ertl talks about the challenges of studying something so structurally complex as the chemistry of solid surfaces, his knack for revisiting old problems with new technology (5:12), his varied background in both physics and chemistry (6:58), the motivation he seeks in students and the returned mentorship they look for in him (10:33), the adventure in finding surprising answers (14:14), and his experience as a Nobel Laureate (19:44).
The 2007 Nobel Laureates met at the Bernadotte Library in Stockholm on 9 December 2007 for the traditional round-table discussion and TV show ‘Nobel Minds’. The show was hosted by BBC presenter Sarah Montague. The Laureates discussed topical issues of global concern, and also answered questions submitted by visitors to BBC.co.uk and Nobelprize.org.
Your questions to Gerhard Ertl
Here, Gerhard Ertl answers additional questions submitted by visitors to Nobelprize.org.
Telephone interview with Gerhard Ertl immediately following the announcement of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 10 October 2007. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
[Gerhard Ertl] – Ertl.
[Adam Smith] – Oh, hello, this is Adam Smith calling from the Nobel Foundation’s official website.
[GE] – Ja. The problem is I’m waiting for a call from our Bundeskanzler, Frau Merkel, so could you call back in a couple of minutes perhaps?
[AS] – Most certainly. It’s very nice to talk to you and congratulations.
[GE] – OK, OK.
[AS] – Thank you. Bye, bye.
(Telephone rings again)
[GE] – Ertl.
[AS] – It’s Adam Smith again. Is it possible to talk at this point?
[GE] – Ah, sorry, I’m still waiting for this other call.
[AS] – Oh, I’m so sorry, I will ring back.
[GE] – Will it be for a very short time?
[AS] – It would be just three minutes.
[GE] – OK.
[AS] – You’re the second German Laureate to win this week. Do you know each other, do you know Peter Grünberg?
[GE] – I don’t know him personally but I of course know all his work and I know the institution where he’s working.
[AS] – And this is the first surface chemistry Nobel Prize since 1932, since Irving Langmuir …
[GE] – That’s right.
[AS] – … that must make it special also.
[GE] – That’s right, that’s fine. That’s right, so I’m very, very much honoured about that.
[AS] – And one of the things the Committee has emphasized is the fact that you have continually revisited problems; old problems and problems that you yourself have addressed. It makes it sound as if a scientist’s work is never done. Could you say that?
[GE] – That’s right, ja, a scientist is never, never at the end, and when we solve a problem, five other problems develop anew. So that’s why a scientist will always think about his work and what he can do next.
[AS] – And you’ve had over a hundred students work for you I gather …
[GE] – Ja, ja.
[AS] – … what do you try and teach them?
[GE] – These were doctoral students, and of course they were working for their theses with me for about three years or so, and so that’s how they learned how to tackle problems in surface chemistry.
[AS] – But what’s the most important lesson they should learn from you, do you think?
[GE] – It’s hard to say, but I think you never should give up, you should always try to solve the problem as far as it is possible. And you must be patient. You must be patient. That’s very important.
[AS] – The last real question is; the field you’ve helped to develop will contribute greatly to the benefit of mankind, what do you think the main benefit might be in the short term?
[GE] – The work that we were doing was related to heterogeneous catalysis and this is a topic which is of great industrial importance, but also of environmental importance. Think of the car exhaust catalsyst, or of all these industrial processes. So, as soon as you understand something better then you can also think of improving it. I think that’s the main message you can learn from it.
[AS] – OK. Thank you very much indeed.
[GE] – OK.
[AS] – Well I gather it’s your birthday today, so …
[GE] – That’s right. Thank you, thank you.
[AS] – … congratulations, bye, bye.
[GE] – Bye, bye.
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