Interview with Martin Karplus on 6 December 2013, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.
Could you explain your Nobel Prize awarded work for young students?
Martin Karplus: Actually, I have a niece who is 13 years old who is with us here, and we talked a little about it. It turns out at least in the US children that age know a great deal about biology, they know what proteins are, they know what mitochondria are, so I am not sure it’s as difficult to explain as it seems to be implied by the question How do you explain it to a 13 year old? But one of the best things is to take an example of what we were able to do. One of the things that make cells work is that they have little transport systems, they have molecules that have basically two feet, and they walk along reels which are called microtubules and they transport things from one end of the cell to another.
In fact, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given for studying the vesicles, the things that these little engines carry from one part to another, but they just looked at the top part here and the vesicles that are carried. We figured out how a couple of molecules which are basically two globular domains like this, that are connected by a coiled-coil can actually walk and they walk the way we walk, in the sense that you put the left foot forward and the right foot forward, left foot forward and the right foot forward. That is one example of how, although people had studied them experimentally and had static pictures of what they looked like, they couldn’t figure out how they moved their feet, they sort of throw their feet forward and it’s that what is one application of the message that we developed, that it can teach us how molecular motors, as these are called, these are called kinesins, how they work.
What brought you to science?
Martin Karplus: I have always enjoyed looking around, looking in nature, seeing things that are around me. When I was young, about nine years old or so, my brother received a chemistry set and so of course I also wanted a chemistry set, but my parents felt that having two chemistry sets in the family, making smells and exploding things was a little too much. So my parents gave me a microscope and what I did was to take sort of the run off on the sidewalk and such and I discovered, looking through the microscope, these little animals, they are called rotifers. They have little discs on the front of them and these discs rotate, and they sort of swim through the water. When I saw that I told my brother and then my father and then I had various of my school friends come and everybody thought that this was really great. That was sort of the beginning of my idea of going into science.
Actually, my family, we come from Austria, and they had left when Austria was taken over by the Germans. My family had always had a physician in there, so that each generation had been a physician because physicians were one of the things that you were allowed to be in Austria even though we were Jewish and since nobody else was interested in being a physician I somehow was designated and when I was little I used to go around and bandage chairs and such. But it was sort of, it wasn’t clear that I wasn’t going to go to med school and go into science even though I was very interested in understanding things and it was really only finally when I started college and got sort of more ideas, but I had a very good chemistry teacher and realized that if you wanted to understand biology you had to learn chemistry and physics and at that point is really when I gave up the idea of medical school and become a scientist.
What were you doing when you got the message of being awarded the Nobel Prize?
Martin Karplus: Many people have asked me what was happening when we got the call, actually it was at 5 o’clock in the morning so we were asleep. The telephone is on my wife’s side of the bed so she picked it up and said: “Some call, maybe it’s for you, it wasn’t quite clear” and gave it to me and my first reaction was that when you get calls at 05.30 in the morning it’s usually bad news, maybe that our son was sick or our daughter in Israel, we hear that something has happened there. But little by little I discovered what it actually was, that it was a phone call from Sweden announcing the Nobel Prize and I was, you know, very pleased by that. To be quite honest many people have said that I should have had the Nobel Prize maybe 30 years ago, so actually for a while, until fairly recently, I used to sort of watch at the right time, usually whenever we spent half of our time in Europe and half of our time in the US. If you are in Europe of course the Nobel Prize is announced at a more decent time, you know around 11.30 or so and I used to watch, but the last few years I decided, well, I have sort of given up and so it was a pleasant surprise.
What has been the most significant breakthrough in your career?
Martin Karplus: My early work was a breakthrough which is probably as famous as this, this was nuclear magnetic resonance and there is an equation named after me, it’s called the Karplus equation. So my life has been a combination of breakthroughs about every five years or so and maybe this will come up later again. I try to do something new and so I have had breakthroughs at various times during my life. And what was selected for the Nobel Prize is pretty arbitrary, so it’s a little hard to say what was the breakthrough. What they cite actually is something that I personally don’t think with a breakthrough but it’s sort of a little part of the important aspect of what I, and now many thousands of people who use the same methods, have done.
How do you stay creative?
Martin Karplus: They had the idea that I should stay in a given university only five years and I stayed … I mean after being in Europe I went to Illinois and was there for five years and I went to Columbia and was there for five years, then I was at Harvard for five years, then I actually moved to Paris. My feeling was that it was very good to get a new environment, to start new problems, completely different problems like the first five years at the University of Illinois. I mentioned that I developed this equation and I was focused on nuclear magnetic resonance which was a new technique in chemistry, and I felt that the theoretical approaches could give insights that people didn’t have because it wasn’t sort of worked out. Then when I went to Columbia I started working on chemical reactions and I when I went to Harvard I started working on biological systems and I think that, as having a new environment and starting something new makes it most likely or more likely, maybe a fair answer, that you will really discover something. I would get invited to go to meetings that discuss what I had sort of stopped doing, and the people are doing interesting things, but for me, I had the feeling that yes, I know what is going on, and it doesn’t have the same excitement. Of course, being a professor having students you can still be working in the old area so you don’t suddenly stop publishing and people wonder what is going on while you are developing ideas as to what they are doing is new. I think it’s right if you want to continue to be creative you have to go into something that you don’t understand, otherwise, at least for me, it isn’t very exciting.
Can you tell us about your passions?
Martin Karplus: In addition to being a scientist I have two other passions, one is photography and actually I had a exhibit of my photographs in Paris and they have nothing to do at all with the science, some of them were taken in Norway and the exhibit is in the 1950s and 60s. I traveled a lot and took Kodachrome pictures and for a while Emily took pictures of my family and thinking of maybe making up an exhibit from those photographs now that I am sort of better known as a photographer. The other thing is that when we do these calculations, we don’t really do any chemistry, the chemistry that I do do is actually cooking. For many years I used to work in a famous restaurant in France in such for two or three weeks every summer and work in the kitchen and replace the people who were taking their day off. That was the real chemistry that I lik to do and still at home now I do the cooking and my wife does the dishwashing and such. So, I think it is nice if being a scientist when you work, you really work full time. I think that’s one of the things you have realize that you have to work really very hard. You can be smart, but that’s not enough. But for me the very important part is okay. I work very hard when I am doing science, but then I do other things and I do them as well and I think that is a good way of living. It’s also better obviously for your family if you can sort of divide your time a little and we have a chalet in the Haute Savoie where we love to go walking and such. I think that’s … for me at least … somebody has written that actually it’s in the preface of a photobook that every scientist has a secret garden and that’s my secret garden.
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Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.