K. Barry Sharpless
Nobel Minds 2022
The 2022 Nobel Prize laureates in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine and economic sciences met at the Bernadotte Library at the Royal Palace in Stockholm on 9 December 2022. They discussed their discoveries and achievements, and how these might find a practical application. The discussion was hosted by the BBC’s Zeinab Badawi.
Telephone interview, October 2022
“You should be drawn to uncertainty”
Telephone interview with Barry Sharpless after the announcement of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on 5 October 2022. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Prize Outreach.
Barry Sharpless quotes Albert Einstein when asked about his daring approach to choosing problems: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there’s no hope for it”. Ever inventive, he starts this conversation not by talking about the work that led to his first Nobel Prize, or even to his second, but his very latest research findings from the lab. Recorded on the morning he was woken very early by the news from Stockholm, he goes on to discuss the dangerous thrill of ideas and how difficult problems just insist on being tackled: “If the damn thing comes back to me and says, ‘You don’t know the answer to this,’ then I say I’ve got to give that respect, and try it again.”
Adam Smith: Barry, it’s Adam here.
Barry Sharpless: Hi Adam.
AS: Many congratulations.
BS: Oh, thank you, thank you very much.
AS: It’s… it’s just such a… such a joy to hear you. And here we are again – second time!
BS: That’s right, yeah, I can’t… Things are… I’m a little bit snow blind right now from no sleep, so…
AS: It’s just so nice to hear you, and to be part of this extraordinary day when you’re receiving your second Nobel Prize.
BS: Okay, because it’s really… it’s lucky, in some other ways you don’t know about, and that is, you know, I sort of changed fields. By the time I won the first I was doing… trying to do click chemistry. Now something’s happened again here… something changed me, got me, some accidental discoveries in materials that are… that looks pretty important for energy.
AS: It’s always the case that whenever one talks to you, we’re always talking about the last thing you did, and you’re always talking about the next thing you’re doing, because you’re just so chemically inventive. And I suppose that’s what people will want to know: what is it about you Barry that makes you so, so inventive?
BS: So that’s a good question, you know, because I remember a couple of times to my Japanese professor, very conservative, Ryoji Noyori, who was winning the prize… but once we were together, years before at a meeting he organised, and it was finally a quiet moment, a lot of famous chemists in the room, and he said ‘well Barry, tell us how you work, how you think, because you’re more successful than any of the rest of us.’ And that’s what you’re asking, and I kind of wonder about that because I’m very… in some ways very slow and, but, actually I think the easiest… I was just looking today, trying to describe for this thing I going to have to do at 1.30, say a few things about what do people want to know. They mostly want to know human things, like how amazing were you that this happened or that happened. One of my favourite quotes is by Einstein ‘If at first the idea is not absurd, then there’s no hope for it’. Now, that’s a weird one, right?
AS: It is, it is, but it’s very powerful. I get… I’m thinking that, I mean, the answer to this question of how you… really you fit in with this Einstein model of thinking the absurd, and somehow it comes into… it becomes reality and you make things happen. Is it to do with the fact you’re a thrill seeker? I mean you always were. When you were young…
BS: You know. Did you talk to me about that before? Because that is something which runs strong. In fact I was just reading that again, it’s the idea of uncertainty. You know it’s the guy who takes the fox to the machine gun nest, and why the hell does somebody do that when they’re going to get killed half the time? And some people just get… they get so excited. It’s like auto-medicating I think. You know, your brain loves that feeling, and it wants to be closer to the excitement. And almost by definition excitement can be equated with danger, so people who are close to making a big discovery just like back in the old days when they were looking for a dinosaur or a big mountain lion. Those who get worried and can’t make the next, can’t look over the next set of rocks or trees, feeling that they’re going to die, they don’t get the chance to get close enough often enough, and…
AS: But your description is very vivid, and it’s so nice that you find that excitement in ideas. Because you know for most people it means going out on a speedboat or a fast car or something.
BS: Yeah, right, right.
AS: But for you it’s an idea, which is very special.
BS: Oh, and it gets very exciting when you get… when you start… that’s where this absurd thing comes in, because some of the things I have had to work through and I realise they came very close to that. But now I’ve got really a main core absurd issue with bonding. You know, we’re at a very high level with computers and bonding but we’re still describing bonding in a way that works, and we don’t really know which is the best way to do it, but basically the bonding thing is like… and then it comes back to the guys who did chemistry in the beginning. I was just reading a… Oh, I’ve got a book you would love, it’s a… maybe you’ve read it already… it’s a… I think I… oh there it is. It’s my son, like, he’s into philosophy and keeps getting things, reading them and then giving them to me. It’s Philosophical Chemistry by Manuel DeLanda.
AS: I don’t know it, I don’t know it. No.
BS: Sounds strange, right? I mean he’s in Switzerland, but I’ve read it, and I don’t know if when you took chemistry you had this problem, but I felt really stupid at some point. They had all this combining ratios and then, you know, and then there was phlogiston … And one thing after another there were no atoms and no bonds, no wonder the poor bastards were lost! So this guy describes that very beautifully, and then he said the biggest thing that he’s interested in … he said there is no science or whatever. We’re trying to figure things out, and we work together or we don’t work together. He said the most incredible time was that bond… the evolution of Avogadro’s number and the bonding things that happened around 1800, 1900. I mean they… they really… they were seriously difficult. And so people that were in a different camp than you were, the camps listened to each other and they met together and they wrote things, and they didn’t get ostracised, so, you know, different groups said different things. They could contribute to the thing that was ephemeral and nobody know where the resolution was going to come. I mean doesn’t that sound really wonderful?
AS: It… Absolutely, that enlightenment approach of, yes, realising that you have different opinions, but coming together to try and work out what the truth is, which was so prevalent then, and really has, yeah… It’s… It’s not the way the world sort of works now. It’s a very, very important point Barry.
BS: So you… that’s one of your conclusions? Yeah, they were reaching… What enabled them to do that? Well they didn’t have much information to… and they had to go by feel, and I guess that’s where, I think instinct is important for me, I know that. And I told you that if I come back at an idea after whatever small timescale or large one, but if the damn thing comes back to me and says ‘you don’t know the answer to this,’ why is it coming back? And then I’d say, I’ve got to give that respect and try it again because it’s subconsciously alive, right? And, yeah.
AS: Lovely, lovely.
AS: Barry, Cathy tells me that I’m not allowed to use much of your time because other people want you, and I respect that, but it’s… I would keep you on the phone all day if I could. I think maybe we have to leave this conversation now and let it happen another time.
BS: I do too, I do too, yes. Because I’m really feeling nervous now. I’m getting excited because I have to say something, I don’t know what it’s going to be on this… I… you know… If I could plan what I was going to say. But once I get ideas from people like you and Jan, I can… I sort of get further along. I think the most important about, we came up with was, of course the unexpected phenomena, you’ve got to pay attention to those, but uncertainty, if you can’t… Uncertainty usually translates to danger, right, or trouble. And so if you can’t really, or aren’t… You should be drawn to uncertainty, that’s the point I guess. And as a discoverer, or adventurer, or somebody who wants to be a hero, basically we’re all trying to do something that most people aren’t. They’re just happy with their family and they’re not trying to, probably not trying to find out something amazing, but… But God, I mean, if you are, it’s not simple, it’s … curiosity is really dangerous, it’s hard to break curiosity, right? You can get out of… well boredom. You get curiosity, but you can’t get out of curiosity once you get it.
AS: I think it’s… that’s… it’s such an important point, and you know you might be attracting a whole different swath of people to science by telling them that there’s danger there. They might like that. That’s a good idea, bring in a whole new cohort of people who wouldn’t…
BS: So, you feel something there?
AS: I do indeed. I do indeed. It’s lovely.
BS: Listen, I got to go.
AS: Yeah, I know.
BS: Because you’re right, okay.
AS: Okay, congratulations again and…
BS: Yeah, thanks so much for getting in touch, and I realise now we, you’re just really a fantastic person to talk to. I talk too much, but I can start talking more if I talk to you again, I think.
AS: But there are really important things to talk about, Barry, and I very much look forward to exploring it all together.
BS: Okay, Adam, thank you so much, and take care man.
AS: You too, congratulations.
AS: And enjoy your day.
BS: Thank you so much.
BS: Bye bye.
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