Transcript of an interview with John B. Goodenough

Interview with John B. Goodenough on 6 December 2019 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden

What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?

John B. Goodenough: Oh, that’s a difficult question! Cause I hope the younger version of myself that you are talking about would be a little bit brighter than I was (laughing) as a younger person. But dialogue, dialogue, dialogue is always very important. We both learn that way.

How do you recognise a good teacher?

John B. Goodenough: First, if they are clear and understand what they are talking about but they also have to know how to challenge you. Not in a way that turns you off, but in a way that challenges you to turn on. So a good teacher always makes you do something a little bit more than you thought that you could do.

Do you see yourself as a mentor now?

John B. Goodenough: I go to the lab and in order to interact with my postdoctoral students and try to see if I can shape them to not copy but to ask questions and to think. We have to have a little dialogue because you don’t pretend to be the fountain of all wisdom. Wisdom comes out of dialogue so you have to develop the capacity to expose your own ignorance in order that they may discover their own wisdom.

What qualities do you think you need to be a successful scientist?

John B. Goodenough: First, don’t copy. Think about the problem and to remember that we compete against problems, not against people. Well as I say, don’t believe everything that you read and don’t be afraid to think and it is alright to understand what has gone before but don’t just rely on copying but develop your internal voice and your own internal means of interpreting. That is a very individual thing and there are many different ways to be successful. Some people are very good at building equipment, you got to be able to measure and you got to be able to know what you are measuring and to interpret and so on. There are other people who do theory and develop theoretical understanding. And then there are people who develop intuition. You have to have some scientific intuition as well. And every scientist is an individual and brings a different talent to the problem. But you have to be willing to dialogue so that we can all benefit from one another’s intuition.

How do you cope with failure?

John B. Goodenough: We all have to recognise that we are going to fail sometimes alright, but some failures are more traumatic than others. (laughing)

How has your dyslexia shaped you?

John B. Goodenough: It meant that I learnt to love nature. It meant also that I would never have been a very good reader. You have to struggle to read as best you can. But you have to not worry, you have to just get out and enjoy life and enjoy what you can do well and do it as well as you can.

How important has nature been for you?

John B. Goodenough: Well, we are supposed to love the Lord our God with all our heart with all our mind and with all our strength. But that is separate from loving our neighbor as ourselves. It means that nature is God’s creation. So we should love nature and understand nature the best we can in order to show our love for the creator. It is a wonderful thing, this nature, this Earth and its abundance and its surprises and its resources and its change. So for me, it’s just I am grateful to be a part of nature.

Has music played an important role in your life?

John B. Goodenough: I can’t say that I am a good musician. I am not particularly musical. But I got rhythm! (laughing) I prefer… you know… I like Bach.

How did your interest in poetry start?

John B. Goodenough: I was to take a course in poetry but of course if you don’t read very well poetry is more difficult thing to really understand, metaphors and so on. That remark is the best way to teach somebody. You say ‘Well, alright, get going boy! Maybe you can do a little better!’ (laughing) So I had to try to see how will I learn to read poetry and I thought the only way to do that is to write poetry. And if you start to write poetry then you realise the problems you have to make the metaphors and so on. That’s how I started to write poetry. I tried to write a poem for my wife every birthday and every Christmas. My wife and I shared very much a vision of Christianity. So I would always write something that was relating to a character or to something rather of that nature. It always had a religious bend to it.

How did you meet your wife?

John B. Goodenough: I was in graduate school and she came a little later on than my graduate school time. I was living in the international house and she was living in the international house. Girls lived in one side and boys in another. We met at the dining room table in between. She didn’t blow me over because she was glamourous. She wasn’t glamourous, she was just herself. She was very comfortable with herself so it was very easy for me to make a friend. You see, love has to do with friendship. Friendship.

What life advice can you share?

John B. Goodenough: The most important thing is that you have a companion that you share the deep things of life. But it is always difficult for a man to understand the secrets to a woman’s heart. Well I think you should be enthusiastic about life. You should enjoy what you do and I say to myself each day: “Help us oh lord, so long as we live to live nobly and to the good cheer of our fellow man.” I think to live life to the fullest you have to be able to have dialogue with people who want to dialogue with you. I think you have to just be thankful for life and be thankful for people who like to engage in meaningful dialogue with you. Yes, I don’t think pessimism gets us anywhere. (laughing) Even though we main live in illusions we have to work very hard to fulfill our illusions as best we can.

How do you remember so much of your life?

John B. Goodenough: One of the great mysteries of life is memory. I helped somebody who was trying to understand memory and the sources of memory and so on. But I learnt that it was a rather complex problem.

How does it feel to be back in Stockholm after 80 years?

John B. Goodenough: My first visit here, that summer or that autumn was the autumn that Hitler moved into Poland. I am very grateful to the city of Stockholm and to all the people who are here and not only to this city but to what this city represents. Thank you all for your hospitality and for even embarrassing me by asking me so many questions I don’t answer very well.

How has living through World War II influenced you?

John B. Goodenough: I realised the stupidity of war, the waste of war, the bravery of some. I believe not in walls but in building relationships, alright. If we can build relationships, we minimize the attempts to go to war. I think that science is an international language and helps to build the relationships that are necessary to suppress the greed and stupidities that lead to war.

What is your relationship with your lab colleagues?

John B. Goodenough: My lab colleagues are very good to me. We enjoy working together in the laboratory but I don’t necessarily hobnob with all of them at recreation times. We do it in the laboratory and so on but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like other friends and that I have other friends too. I dialogue with them about other things than just their work. So if they bring me some lunch, we are having some lunch together we talk about other things. When my wife was living, she was a gracious hostess and a good cook so then we would invite students who couldn’t go home for their holidays always to come and enjoy their holidays. She would cook very well. I am afraid I miss my wife quiet a bit. She was very special.

What are the characteristics of a very good team?

John B. Goodenough: A good team is never selfish, it shares. Recognising that they do things together. I shouldn’t steal the intellectual property of my students and they shouldn’t steal the intellectual property of one another. You know, science is an international language. And I have enjoyed travelling all over the world and sharing scientific discussions with people from almost every country in the world.

What is your relationship with Akira Yoshino?

John B. Goodenough: Well, we are not good friends in the normal sense of friendship but he has always been a person who has listened to what I am doing and reacted to it. We have had dialogue in the science together. In that sense we are good friends. For example, when I say well LiCoO2 is going to be a very good cathode he immediately comes up ‘yeah, but you got to join it with carbon!’ (laughing)

How has the scientific landscape has changed over the years?

John B. Goodenough: Science is an international language, that is one of the beauties of science. As so, there is always international interaction in all aspects on science. That’s why people publish papers and read papers in order to be able to interact and dialogue as best you can with everybody who is interested in the same kind of problems as you are. I am not an astrophysicist to continue with our exploration or a particle physicist who keep looking at what are the building blocks of nature and so on. But people do learn some things and even I learn some things (laughing). So my scientific landscape changes according to how much I have learnt in the last year. The science hasn’t changed it is just my understanding of the science has changed to come along.

What environment encourages creative thinking?

John B. Goodenough: Quietness. (laughing) I mean you have to think, that’s hard work. You know some people can listen to music and think at the same time but if you are a musician they never want background music, right? You either listen to the music or you turn it off. (laughing) I suppose I do my best thinking when I am in dialogue with somebody about a problem. I think dialogue is very important for thinking. And sometimes when you have to write something up, you are dialoguing with yourself as you are writing something up and you think about things. You have to try to be clear when you write. And you have to try to be brief. Get away with the clutter and just get to the point.

What research are you working on now?

John B. Goodenough: We are still trying to get better batteries, of course, and I have some people who have come and are here with me at the moment. They are two people from Iran, Hadi and his wife Isl. They are polymer people and they are trying to teach me a lot about polymers. So you see, through dialogue with every people you have then you keep learning. They keep teaching me something all the time. I think I have some contribution to make, they seem to be happy to talk to me anyway and I am very happy to talk with them.

What are your thoughts on sustainability?

John B. Goodenough: The dependence in modern society and the energy stored in fossil fuel is not sustainable. We have to learn to harness the energy that comes to us from the sun either in the form of wind or in the form of radiant energy. And we have to be able to convert it into electric power which we know how to do. But as diverse… you can transport electric power over wires over some distances but you have to have a collection site. But you have to be able to store that energy because it comes in at time scales that are very different from the time scales of demand. So that is one of the reason you work on batteries because they store electric power.

What future do you see for sustainable batteries?

John B. Goodenough: Well they have to come! But we have to keep working hard on it to improve it, okay? We haven’t solved all the problems yet but rechargeable batteries exist. Rechargeable batteries do a fairly good job but they don’t do as good job as they need to do so we keep working to see if we can improve them.

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