Interview with Michael Levitt on 6 December 2013, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.
Could you explain your Nobel Prize awarded work for young students?
Michael Levitt: Firstly we have been helped very much by the Nobel Committee because they really helped to define a certain part of work and I would say that the work that we did was develop models for the big molecules in chemistry and biology that would enable one to do calculations on these models. One needs to remember that computers were really really slow back then, something like a hundred million times slower than today and basically the key thing was to simplify things, and as Einstein once said something , at least it’s attributed to Einstein, although the wikiquote said it wasn’t really him, and that was that you should make everything as simple as you can but no simpler. So we had to make things as simple as we could so that the computer could do the calculation and not so simple that the results would be meaningless. We were lucky, I think we got the right level of simplicity. We were then able to put them in to the computer and do calculations on large molecules simulations. It’s a bit like simulating the weather, which I guess in Sweden doesn’t work very well, but in some countries like California it really works well, because tomorrow will be like today will be like yesterday and so on. But in calculations you can do the same thing for biological molecules and then you can sort of calculate the date in between experiments so it becomes a tool that can be used with experiments and I think there is going to be many things in the future where computers are going to be so important.
What brought you to science?
Michael Levitt: One answer is that when I was fifteen, I used to like to play pool, snooker, and one night I came back really late and my mother was really upset and worried, I was in South Africa and it wasn’t that safe. She said: “If you have so much time to go and play with your friends you should work harder at school”. She made me skip two years of school and go to university two years earlier, but I had an uncle and an aunt who were scientists in England and it was also an television programme on the television in England in 1964 and it was given by a very famous British Nobel Laureate, John Kendrew, who got the Nobel Prize in -62. This was a television programme called The thread of life and it really had a big influence. I remember in South Africa there would be no televisions, for me television was really a big deal and the television I had was probably a really expensive black and white television about this big, in fact it was black and yellow. On the BBC they had this programme The thread of life as well as the Winter Olympics in -64 and I think I liked The thread of life more, so that’s what made me into that area. It was a lot of different kind of lucky things happening. I am very pleased, even without the Nobel Prize I am very pleased to be a scientist, it’s a great carrier.
What were you doing when you got the message of being awarded the Nobel Prize?
Michael Levitt: I was very surprised, somewhat very tired because I got to sleep one hour before, so I was just getting into sleep. I think initially with feeling of chock, disbelief, but then the committee was very clever, they ask you questions that only they would know, people said to me: “You had to send that review four years ago and you never did it, where is it?” Somebody else said “Remember how we got drunk in Italy in the summertime” and the other person said: “When you go to the archipelago you’d better come with me, don’t go by yourself”, so this made me realise … I actually talked to the Chairman of the committee today and he said somebody last year had been called the night before on a joke call and when they called him he was really upset so they decided from now on they would have this verification scheme. Very quickly, it’s a real chock, I was like, I describe it as five double espressos maybe it was seven, but it was really an adrenalin burst, that’s amazing, kind of a nice drug.
Have you had a eureka moment?
Michael Levitt: I think when we did the work, and this was work that was done, I was between the ages of 20 and 25, I was very young. I think we thought the work was exciting, but I think a scientist always thinks their work is exciting, and there is a big difference. Even if you think your work is exciting and having an impact, to get a Nobel Prize it’s got to be a certain area and I think I have always work in many different areas. I think it was quite hard for them to find one area that went right back to the beginning so I was certainly surprised, you know I think that in science you hardly ever have a eureka moment. You have lots of little eureka moments, like I have just found an error in a programme or where did I leave my keys or whatever, but I think that it’s much more, science is a mixture of ideas and lots of hard work and being very persistent. I think you have to not give up, you have to believe in yourself, you have to realize that if it’s a new idea, people are not going to like it and if people like it then it’s not a good idea.
On the Nobel Prize
Michael Levitt: I tell everyone the first time I came here was on the ferry from Denmark to Malmö to drink the alcohol cheaply. I don’t remember all those trips, but they could have been quite a lot of them. I was washing dishes in Denmark in 1964 and -65, I came in 64 and 65, but since then I have come for scientific reasons. I love the Swedish people for their hospitality, which is amazing, they are very very gracious for the Nobel Prize, because it’s really a Swedish thing, but it is also a gift to the world, the whole world benefits enormously from that there is a Nobel Prize, science everywhere benefits everywhere enormously so you know.
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Their work and discoveries range from paleogenomics and click chemistry to documenting war crimes.
See them all presented here.