Interview with Eric Betzig, 6 December 2014, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.
Could you deescribe your Nobel Prize-awarded work in simple terms?
Eric Betzig: My work and the work of my colleagues for this prize is about trying to see small things, particularly living things in cells. So, your body is composed of cells and the cells themselves are composed of molecules, and in particular proteins come together to create the life inside of cells. There is about 10,000 different kinds of proteins but they are about 100 times smaller than old microscopes can look at. The microscope we developed is a microscope to allow you to see much closer to the level of the individual molecules that make up single cells.
At what point did you realize your work was a breakthrough?
Eric Betzig: When did I knew it was a breakthrough … My feeling is that most of the time for many awards, I think, including my work, is that there are several steps that seem like big jumps but there is not a single step. But probably the biggest small step was when my friend and I, we built the microscope that ultimately won me the prize in his living room and when we first put a sample in, it would turn on single molecules and we saw these molecules come on, I knew that the idea we had was likely going to work. So, 2006 was when that happened.
What brought you to science?
Eric Betzig: The space program, because I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid because the Apollo program was going on then and that captured my imagination. That led me even in elementary school, by third grade I was captivated by science, particularly physics.
Who is your role model, and why?
Eric Betzig: I am egotistical enough to consider myself as my primary role model, but there have been people, particularly system integrators of the past. I consider myself much more of an engineer than a physicist or certainly a chemist, like Jo (Joseph) Shea. He was the program manager for the Apollo program and he is the guy who brought together all the technical threads to make the command module and the lunar module and riding herds of 30,000 engineers across the country at the time. Or a guy like Elon Musk, building space axe very quickly out of nothing and Tesla. Guys like that inspire me. I would not necessarily call them role models, but it is nice to know that there are other guys out there who just don’t give up and put everything they can and all their passion into a project.
Do you see a difference between academia and industry?
Eric Betzig: It is different in some ways and the same in other ways. I worked after I got my PhD, I worked at Bell Labs a sort of industrial but really basic research place for six years and was working on technologies that ultimately lead to this prize, but I got fed up with the limitations at the time and I quit science. Then worked in my father’s machine tool company, which is a much smaller enterprise, a few hundred guys. But although, in the academic world oftentimes they looked down their noses at what happens in the industry. It has been my experience that many of the people I have met working in my father’s company were as smart, if not smarter, than many of my colleagues that I have had in academia. People are just smart in different ways and different fields and they peak at different times. Oftentimes, guys in industry are later bloomers and the sort of young kids who latch to science early, but it is all about problem solving, either endeavour, and clever people find ways to solve problems in all walks of life. My father is now retired, he is 90, but I worked with him up until, let see, until he was about 80 years old.
What are you future plans?
Eric Betzig: That is a good question. The prize makes it harder leave the academic world but about every seven years I have an itch about try something new. One of my fears with the prize is that you get complacent and I always want to be pushed and scared because I feel I am most productive when I am scared about being able to provide for my family or do whatever I think, that’s when the creativity is the highest.
I feel like I have probably about two or three more years – I have actually been working on other microscopes since 2008. About four or five years ago I stopped doing the work that lead me to the prize because I was frankly bored of it. I have been working on other kinds of microscopes and answered other kinds of questions, but I think I have a couple of more years of that before I’ve said everything I have to say about microscopy. I honestly like to go work for one of the private space transportation companies if I could.
What were you doing when you heard you had been awarded the Nobel Prize?
Eric Betzig: It is nice to win something like the Nobel Prize, but I feel a bit uncomfortable and, in some ways, hypocritical about accepting it, because I have always believed that accomplishments are objective, but accolades are subjective. The accomplishments are things like the idea for the thing that got me the prize, I got it right after I quit from Bell Labs and was walking my daughter around in a stroller in the neighbourhood. You can always remember those moments like the were just five minutes ago, I can remember that flash that I wasn’t even thinking about the problem, but it just pops into your head about how you can combine elements of your previous work to do something new.
The idea laid fallowed for ten years while I was in industry and then when my friend and I were visiting another lab, we found about this photoactivated protein which was the missing link. So that is another time that again will always feel like it is just a few minutes ago that you just remember “Oh my god, this is exactly what will make that idea work”. A then a year later, when we actually saw that work in the microscope, and we turned on this one light and these molecules popped on all of a sudden. We said: “We have got it; it is going to work”. Those three events that lead to this prize, those are the thing that you remember when you are dying. You won’t remember exactly what happened this week, but you will remember those actual accomplishments and when they happened.
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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.