“A scientist works at a border, at the edge of science, at the edge of knowledge”
Telephone interview with Stefan Hell following the announcement of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 7 October 2014. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
[Stefan Hell] Ja, hello
[Adam Smith] This is Adam Smith calling from Nobelprize.org
[SH] Hi, Adam, hello.
[AS] Congratulations of course on the award of the Nobel Prize.
[SH] Thanks, thanks.
[AS] May I ask just what you were doing when the news came?
[SH] I was reading a paper actually, and going through the details of a paper.
[AS] And, your initial reaction on hearing the news?
[SH] It was a total surprise. I couldn’t believe it. The first moment I thought it was perhaps a hoax or so. But I remembered the voice of Professor Normark, and I realised there were other people around and he said he would confirm by email, and so it’s serious. First of all I couldn’t really believe it. But then I gradually realised that it’s true.
[SH] Ja, I read the paragraph that I wanted to read to the end [Laughs]. And then I called up my wife and tried to reach some of the people who are close to me.
[AS] But that’s marvellous, that’s true dedication, staying with the paper. I guess that’s what makes you successful. You defied conventional wisdom in thinking that you could break the diffraction barrier. What gave you the courage to try that?
[SH] I think it was insight. So, I had realised that, that was my view at least, that so much physics happened in the 20th century that it is impossible that there is no say phenomenon, or physical chemistry phenomenon, that would allow you to overcome the diffraction barrier that was coined in 1873 or so. So I felt that there must be something, a kind of phenomenon that leads you beyond the barrier. And so I got kind of convinced that there must be something, and so I tried to find something and eventually I found ways to overcome that limit.
[AS] Clearly you are deeply passionate about science. Do you consider science fun?
[SH] Yes, absolutely. So I love to be a scientist. I’ve always enjoyed being curious. I’ve always enjoyed doing challenging things and also challenging common wisdom. So, I think that’s something a scientist can do because a scientist works at a border, at the edge of science, at the edge of knowledge, and so there’s a lot of fun of reaching out and thinking about things that other people didn’t think about. And so it has a kind of exploratory notion, kind of adventurous part in it.
[AS] I think people often neglect that, that really you can be in the lab and be just as adventurous as people exploring the deep ocean.
[SH] Absolutely, and also creative. I mean, you can imagine that something works. I imagined there would be a way to crack the diffraction barrier. But of course I didn’t know exactly how it would work, but I had a gut feeling that there must be something and so I tried to think about it, to be creative. And that initial phase of the development, it was a creative act. In the end of course you have to prove that it’s not just imagination. It’s not just a theory or just a thought – it is true. And there is where the hard work comes in. And you have to really prove that the way you think about it is right. And that took, of course, some time and a lot of development.
[AS] Thank you very much indeed. That’s marvellous. I guess now that you’re going to be swamped by people like me asking you questions. How does that prospect …
[SH] Well, I locked myself in, and so I’m OK so far.
[AS] How very sensible of you. You sound like you’re well in control of this situation. So, I wish you a very enjoyable day. I hope the following hours are enormous fun. Thank you very much for speaking to us now.
[SH] Thank you very much for calling.
[AS] My pleasure. Thank you. Bye bye.
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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.