Interview with Eric Betzig

“… shock, a little bit of quakes for about 20 seconds, then equal measures of happiness and fear”

Telephone interview with Eric Betzig following the announcement of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 8 October 2014. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.

[Eric Betzig] Hello

[Adam Smith] Oh, hello. My name is Adam Smith, I’m calling from, the official website of the Nobel Prize.

[EB] Do you know what time it is right now?

[AS] Yes, it is just coming up to twenty to two in the afternoon.

[EB] OK, twenty to two good. If I ramble on can you cut me off at ten to two ’cause I have to give a talk at two, and set up my slides.

[AS] [Laughs] Of course.

[EB] You know, I have a keynote at a conference here I’m giving at two. Yeah.

[AS] Quite right, well I can bet you’ll get a stunning reception. How nice that you’re sticking to schedule. Well, first of all, you’re in Germany now so how did the news reach you?

[EB] Just the committee themselves, they called me around 11:30.

[AS] And what was your first reaction?

[EB] Well, I mean, shock, a little bit of quakes for about 20 seconds, then equal measures of happiness and fear.

[AS] [Laughs] What’s the fear about?

[EB] The fear is, you know, your life being changed. You know, I mean I really like my life the way it is now. And I don’t need… you know… I’m busy enough as it is. [Laughs] So I don’t like saying no to people and I’m going to have to learn how to say no more. And I mean obviously I’m happy with it but I am a little bit scared about how much it will, particularly over the next three months, affect things.

[AS] Yes indeed.

[EB] It comes with the territory, right?

[AS] You yourself have tended to tread a fairly unconventional path. I mean you resigned from Bell Labs, you stepped away from academia. Quite a risky strategy.

[EB] Well, yes and no. I mean, in my opinion the only real asset one has is one’s reputation, right? I mean any company, and institution can go belly up at any time. But if you have a good reputation, you know, you can usually find somebody who can, who thinks they can use what you have to offer. So, I never really viewed it as all that risky at some level. Frankly, I guess, I don’t really understand why people, why so many people, are so risk averse. You know there’s always ways to wiggle your way out of any situation if you’re motivated enough.

[AS] This is a chemistry prize, do you consider yourself a chemist, a physicist, what?

[EB] Ha! I already said to my son, you know, chemistry, I know no chemistry. [Laughs] Chemistry was always my weakest subject in high school and college. I mean, you know, it’s ironic in a way because, you know, trained as a physicist, when I was a young man I would look down on chemists. And then as I started to get into super-resolution and, which is really all about the probes, I came to realise that it was my karma because instead I was on my knees begging the chemists to come up with better probes for me all the time. So, it’s just poetic justice but I’m happy to get it wherever it is. But I would be embarrassed to call myself a chemist.

[AS] Last question. You’ve changed fields a few times in the past. Do you think you’ll change field again?

[EB] Well, I was almost certain I would before this prize happened. Now it’s going to be, now people are going to want to keep me from changing too much. But, you know, it’s probably a quixotic dream but, you know, I’ve always been… when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut and I’ve been watching with jealousy the development of the private space transportation companies. You know, if I could ever get away from this, it might be fun some day. Hell, if I was just sweeping the floor of the assembly bay while they were putting the rockets together I just think that would be a blast. You know? I don’t know, I’m an engineer at heart so that impresses me – like super-resolution it’s just a fascinating engineering challenge.

[AS] It’s been a great pleasure to speak to you. Thank you very much indeed. Congratulations again.

[EB] Alright, good, thanks a lot. Bye, bye.

[AS] Thank you, bye bye.

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MLA style: Interview with Eric Betzig. Nobel Media AB 2020. Sat. 30 May 2020. <>

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