Stefan W. Hell


Interview, November 2020

Q&A with Stefan Hell – Being a Scientist

In advance of the 2021 Nobel Prize Dialogue in Korea, a digital event on 17 November 2020 explored the theme of ‘Being a Scientist’. This was an online interview with Stefan Hell, on issues such as creativity, collaboration and dealing with failure, moderated by Adam Smith, chief scientific officer at Nobel Prize Outreach.

The conversation explored Stefan Hell’s experiences as a scientist, and the journey that led to his Nobel Prize. He shared advice about developing a scientific career, and gave an insight into life as a researcher. The discussion addressed some of the challenges facing the scientific community, including diversity, reproducibility and the pressure to publish in top tier journals. For part of the discussion Hell was joined by Jung-Hye Roe, President of National Research Foundation of Korea.

Interview, December 2014

Interview with 2014 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Stefan W. Hell, 6 December 2014.

Transcript of the interview

Stefan W. Hell’s work in simple terms.

Stefan W. Hell on his breakthroughs.

Stefan W. Hell on his interest in science.

Stefan W. Hell on role models.

Stefan W. Hell’s plans for the future.

Copyright © Nobel Media AB 2014
Nobel Minds 2014

The 2014 Nobel Laureates met at the Grünewald Hall in the Stockholm Concert Hall in Stockholm on 11 December 2014 for the traditional round-table discussion and TV program ‘Nobel Minds’. The Nobel Laureates discussed the discoveries for which they’ve been honored, how these can be applied in a practical way, and the role of science in today’s society. The discussion was hosted by Zeinab Badawi of the BBC.

Interview, October 2014

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 W. Hell was going through the details of a paper when he got the news that he had been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with Eric Betzig and William E. Moerner. He then finished reading the paragraph – and then called his wife. Hear his reaction when he got the call from Stockholm.

Interview transcript

[Stefan Hell] Ja, hello

[Adam Smith] This is Adam Smith calling from

[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.

[AS] And what was the first thing you did after you’d received the news and found out that it was 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.

[SH] Bye.

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