Interview with Jacques Dubochet on 6 December 2017 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.
Where does your passion for science come from?
Jacques Dubochet: I heard frequently this term, passion, and it is not quite correct for me. It is just a requirement, it is a need. The need for understanding was my way of finding my way in life. You know as a young child I don’t think that I was a very special child, but sometimes you are afraid, life is sometimes threatening, the night, and understanding was my way out.
I was in Wallis, in a very catholic region, my mother was also protestant, actively protestant. There are two solutions in the world, one is the guardian angel, the other one is understanding. I will not say that the guardian angel is nothing, but my way was understanding. Then I continued and it is not just by accident that I became a scientist.
How do you think that having dyslexia has shaped your life?
Jacques Dubochet: In fact I think I thought more about this point since two months than all the time before. I got a lot of contacts with other dyslexias and with the association of dyslexic parents and so forth. But at that time it was complicated so I could continue during the college from, well say, eleven to sixteen, I was at school and I was still accepted at that school while I had marks which were not acceptable. In some sense this saved me but also its make that, it was you know laziness below. So instead of working hard I did nothing, relaxing on dyslexia.
But at sixteen then the director who gave me this chance not to be thrown away, went into retirement and I was thrown away within three weeks. But my parents made a courageous move, they throw me to Swiss Germany in a college there and within one year it was too late I would say. I had other methods to understand and to progress in life. It was a big shake-up and then from that moment it went well. The time before was a hard time, a sad time. You know, a young boy who does not know where to be in life. In this sense I feel quite happy to speak with young people who has trouble. And I like to say, to society, that there are a lot of young children who are lost because we feel they are out of the frame. But what can happen later is enormous, I am an example for that.
What words of advice would you give your younger self?
Jacques Dubochet: Really, we all have something valuable in us, so cultivate what you have in you. When you are young you don’t know what it is, but you know what you like so go on with what you like. We don’t know to be good in everything, we just know to be good in something. On this stone you can build a life, I think so, or you need a bit luck and in order to bring me to Nobel Prize you need a lot of luck.
Tell us about your passion to teach science and mathematics to young refugees.
Jacques Dubochet: Imagine you have a Somalian girl who came here, abducted by some terrorists. Was brought away and could come home again and then her father could send her away because she could not stay there and come in Switzerland and she is fourteen and a half. She come in a home for young refugees without parents. There she grows and she was supported. Then I work with this person and I teach her mathematics, two plus three and so forth. Then you have this two person, this person and the future Nobel Prize speaking for one hour in front of the other, just about trying to understand, trying to understand each other. That is impressive! Perhaps she learned something in mathematics, but I learned very much about human being. First of all, of course, what to say? There are so many words, the basic word of course … We are as different as possible, but we love each other. You see, this word is a complicated word, but there is in human beings the capability to love each other above all the difference. That is a big thing! The thing we should cultivate and make great!
How can we interest the younger generation in knowledge and science?
Jacques Dubochet: I think that it is in human, in the biology of human, to be interested, not in science, but in knowledge. Understanding what is coming on. If I dream, if I walk, and just think about nothing. I think about what will happen, what is going to happen. I want to know what is going to happen. For that I need to understand a lot of things. The more I understand, the more I am prepared to go my way in life. This is the way the homo sapiens developed and became this powerful object which is making the world, for the best and for the worse.
How has life been since you were awarded the Nobel Prize?
Jacques Dubochet: Of course it is a shock but I thought I don’t want to change. I thought I managed that, but my wife and my children noticed that no, no, it is visible that you are quite shocked. Indeed, two days ago I was sick, I didn’t understand what happened, but the Nobel Prize is a big shock.
How did you celebrate the announcement?
Jacques Dubochet: At the first minute, the first afternoon, I was at my university campus. Everybody was celebrating, and they wanted signatures and photographs. I thought, what do they want with that? Then a young person gave me a packet of chocolate, a box of chocolate. And I told her ‘Allez, keep it, I don’t want chocolate’. And she took it again and she put it on me vigorously and said ‘But no, ça me fait plaisir’ – it is a pleasure for me! And so I realised so many people just are happy because I got this Nobel Prize. And this is surprising, all this people, I got now about 2,000 messages, the overwhelming majority you have the impression, the people are happy to be happy with you.
How has your discovery benefitted humankind?
Jacques Dubochet: We got this Nobel Prize for our progress in imaging of molecules and we see now atoms therefore we are in chemistry and more chemistry is extremely powerful with that we can develop drugs to cure I don’t know what, understand how the brain working, conscience. I don’t know where we go. It is knowledge. Knowledge is our best common good. We should keep that as a common good. Any knowledge in the world should belong to everywhere. Which is not so obvious. Now the second question is what will you do with that? We are very good in producing knowledge, I am the testimony of that. But are we so good in using it, in using our knowledge for the best of all mankind? We have clearly very big progress to make on that.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Jacques Dubochet: I am retired since 10 years. I am still in my university, I have my small office there. I try to learn, I continue, I read. The best way to learn is to discuss with colleagues. Because instead of reading hard difficult scientific papers you just discuss and you get the explanation. That is a big advantage. As you understand I spend time with refugees or with people with less chance. We walk a lot, voilà, we are doing things that make us quite happy.
Do you feel that the day has enough hours?
Jacques Dubochet: No, no, that is the big trouble. Twenty-four hours a day is very much too short. Oh, là là. You see I am 75 and I still do not know how to restrict myself. Probably this has something to do with Calvinism. I am not at all Calvinist of course but nevertheless every minute you get, every minute is so precious you want to do something out of it. “Les minutes, mortel folâtre, sont des gangues. Qu’il ne faut pas lâcher sans en extraire l’or.” Baudelaire!
Do you enjoy reading?
Jacques Dubochet: Reading, yes of course. Ishiguro, very good! All the family is reading him know. My daughter read him before, but we discovered him only since the Nobel Prize. It is a very remarkable thing!
When do you get your most creative ideas?
Jacques Dubochet: Morning, but no no! The right way, and I am not first one to say that is, is while walking. Before it was while jogging, now I am not jogging anymore, but walking in the forest. I think Nietzsche was saying things about that. Do not believe my great thing that I am writing on my desk are coming like that, no, they are coming while I am walking and from time to time I am able to keep them until I can write them down. That is exactly my feeling. Or under the shower! All my genius ideas are coming under the shower, but unfortunately, the minute after, they are no more genius.
When did you get the idea for your Nobel Prize-awarded discovery? While jogging?
Jacques Dubochet: No, but the jogging was very important, yes. At that time I was jogging nearly every day, my ten kilometers. We were not numerous too. The institute was in the forest, it was a beautiful forest. It was ideal for that and we frequently went in a group. It was psychologically interesting, those who always want to be a bit quicker and those who are running three meters behind or three meters in front and those who are just running alone.
What would you say is your greatest achievement in life?
Jacques Dubochet: I have tried all my life, I think now I can say it, to live harmoniously. Big, big, big, hard task, and to decide to make my life and I have had the chance to be able to do it relatively well as I wanted. I have given this recent time frequently for the young one and for the students and also I said it already to my students. There are two kind of fishes, the fishes going with the stream, they are the dead fish and there are the fishes going against the stream, they are the living fish. So I try to be a living fish. I was lucky and I feel that it went quite well. So my biggest achievement was that I think I could do that a bit correctly.
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Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
See them all presented here.