Telephone interview, October 2021
“We thought it had a very low probability of success”
Telephone interview with David MacMillan following the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on 6 October 2021. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Prize Outreach.
The best ideas in science are often the ones with the least chance of succeeding, says David MacMillan: “It’s the stuff that should never work which is where all the good stuff is!” In this conversation, recorded on the morning of the announcement, the thrill of discovery is also open to any undergraduate embarking in organic chemistry: “the very first day they build a molecule, it has never been made in the universe before!” And as for the news of his Nobel Prize: he describes how he initially thought it was a prank, bet his co-laureate, Benjamin List, $1000 that it wasn’t true, and went back to bed!
Michael Hotchkiss: I have Professor MacMillan here if you’re ready to speak with him.
Adam Smith: Absolutely, very much so, thank you.
David MacMillan: Hello?
AS: Hello, this is Adam Smith, from Nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize.
DM: Hi Adam.
AS: Hi, many, many congratulations on the award.
DM: Thank you so much.
AS: Did you actually get the call from Stockholm?
DM: No, I didn’t. I got a text from someone in Stockholm, where my name was wrong, and I assumed it was a prank call. I’ve had a lot of mischievous ex-co-workers over the years, I just assumed it was one of them having a prank, so I actually just went back to sleep.
AS: And when did the news actually reach you?
DM: Well the news reached me because, after I’d… Actually the other winner, Ben List, also was trying to contact me. I contacted him. He told me what was happening and I said I actually didn’t believe him too. I thought maybe the same person was pranking him, so I basically bet him $1,000 dollars that this was not happening, went back to sleep, and then woke up with my phone going crazy, and I was $1,000 down but a very happy person.
AS: Yeah, cheap at the price perhaps.
DM: Yeah, I guess.
AS: When we spoke to Ben List, he was in a café with his wife, Sabina, in… on holiday, so it’s reached you in strange ways, this news.
DM: Yeah, no, but you know it’s obviously for anyone it’s extraordinarily welcome news, and you know, and I’m incredibly… I’m still trying to handle it, and I’m sure you’ve talked to a lot of people in this position, and you get the same response. It’s hard to get your feet underneath you, to a certain extent, you’re just trying to take it all in.
AS: I guess the day carries you along a little bit. It must have been already quite a whirlwind.
DM: Yeah, I mean the very first moment I came out of my driveway and there was press at the bottom of the driveway, which is… doesn’t usually happen to me on a Wednesday morning, I would say. And then when I got to work there was press in the parking lot there too, so that was unique, and it’s just been a sort of whirlwind ever since. But what’s wonderful is these fantastic people sitting beside me, the communications folks at Princeton, who are just top, top range professionals at dealing with this kind of stuff, so they’re keeping me in check, which is good.
AS: Yeah, they shepherd you about, and I guess you’re, yes… I gather you’re within the kind of confines of your department now, so relatively safe. And I spoke to your assistant earlier and she said you were doing an interview with your group.
DM: Yeah, well it wasn’t really an interview, it was a group meeting. We have group meeting every morning at 9 o’clock, and I thought, you know, for a little bit of sanity I would still have our group meeting, which was good, and so we just talked about science for an hour, which was kind of fun. And it was a very, as you can imagine, happy celebratory mood, and they’d sort of showed up with champagne and cakes. How they got champagne I don’t know, because you can’t buy alcohol in Princeton until 10 in the morning, but somehow they found champagne. So I’m not very sure how they did that, but it was… yeah it was a very good meeting.
AS: Maybe they know more than you did, and knew that this was, or suspected this was on the way.
DM: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s one of the things research groups are incredibly good at, solving problems at short notice, and once again they came through.
AS: Well I did want to ask you about that, because the inventiveness of all this is just extraordinary, and it’s, you know, what you’ve been awarded for, the asymmetric organocatalysis, and then adding onto that photoredox catalysis. Where do all these ideas come from?
DM: I don’t know. That’s a terrible answer I realise, and everyone wants a nice straight forward answer. I think everyone, all scientists, have these kind of wacky ideas along the way, and some of them work and some of them don’t work. And this was one that, you know, came and was successful and went forward, and, you know… and again it sounds obvious to say we were lucky – but we were lucky, you know, there’s way more… way more ideas fail than ever succeed, and this was one that, you know, we were very excited about at the beginning, we thought it had a very low probability of success, but it took off, and it took off like gangbusters. And that was, that was wonderful to see.
AS: Yes, I suppose it’s slightly a case of gambling on some risky ideas and seeing whether they come to fruition.
DM: Yeah, no, I think that part is right, I think you have to gamble. You know, I think that’s why scientists in my opinion have the greatest job in the world, because we get to show up everyday, we get to take these sort of risks, and we get to work on things that should never work. And if you think about it, it’s the stuff that should never work which is where all the good stuff is, because there’s always… well, knowledge is incredibly important. There’s always parts of knowledge which are over-stated or are underappreciated too, and so there’s definitely things that people believe would never work that have a fantastic chance of getting there, and I think, honestly, I’m one of those people, there’s many like me, who think we’ve just scratched the surface on that kind of way of thinking.
AS: Well certainly on the diversity of organic molecules to be built we’ve just scratched the surface – there’s a whole universe to explore.
DM: Oh that’s for sure. I mean that’s one of the things which is, you know, one of the most exciting parts I think, you know… in talking to incoming undergrads even, or a first year, the fact that the very first day they build a molecule, it’s never been made in the universe before, and you explain that to them and they get so excited about the fact they’ve just done that. You don’t sort of realise how open the whole field is and the whole science is towards doing new things, and I think that’s what… that’s what… that’s what keeps chemistry and science moving forward.
AS: Well, that’s nice to finish on a kind of recruitment drive for chemistry.
AS: I’m sure that people will be converted. I hope we’ll talk about all this more at greater length in the future, but I should let you get on with this day, and I guess people will be left wondering whether Ben List is going to collect on his $1,000.
DM: Oh, I would be the happiest person in the world to hand Ben the cheque for $1,000, and you know, I’m glad he won that bet.
AS: Excellent, lovely, thank you very much for speaking to us, and wishing you a fantastic day.
DM: Thanks a lot, thank you.
DM: Thanks Adam.
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