First reactions. Telephone interview, October 2023
“This is a collaborative effort”
“This is a collaborative effort,” says Louis E. Brus when asked for his first reaction to the award of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, “partly physics, partly chemistry, partly material science.” In this conversation with the Nobel Prize’s Adam Smith he pays tribute to the many contributors to the field and his own motivations for exploring the nature of nanoparticles in the productive environment of Bell Labs, 40 years ago. “It’s a surprise, at this point, after all these years,” he says, “I’m just lucky, I guess, that the Nobel Prize has chosen to honour this particular areas of research at this time.”
Louis Brus: Hello?
Adam Smith: Hello. Am I speaking to Louis Brus?
LB: Yes, that’s correct.
AS: Good morning. Sorry to call so early. First of all, congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
LB: Thank you. It’s… I was dead asleep when the phone calls came. I did not answer them, and it’s a surprise at this point, you know, at this point after all these years.
AS: Indeed. How did the news actually reach you then?
LB: Well, the phone kept ringing and I was trying to sleep and normally that doesn’t happen. And so I finally got up and returned one of the phone calls. And it was from some kind of television station, I think, in Miami or something like that. You know, and they wanted to get my reaction and they told me, you know, they were the first people to tell me that I had won this prize. So that’s how I got it, basically. And then I just looked on the internet to make sure it was real, you know.
AS: And there it was, yes. Your first reaction to realizing it was the case?
LB: Well, first reaction is thinking about the whole field and people who did not get it, you know. This is a collaborative effort, you know, it’s partly physics, partly chemistry and partly material science. Synthetic laboratory, synthetic work, you know, organo-metallic chemistry. And so it’s basically done by collaboration rather than one person making a discovery. And I’ve had some very strong collaborators who participated strongly in this, you know, that should be recognized as well. One is Paul Alivisatos of the University of Chicago. Another is Mike Steigerwald, who’s here at Columbia as well, besides the people who actually won it. The third one is Sasha Efros. That’s what went through my head, you know. This is a team effort.
AS: To you personally, what does it mean to be awarded the prize?
LB: It’s a great honour and it’s recognition for the field. It’s recognition, you know, that I have worked very hard on this subject for a long time, but at the same time, there are many scientists all over the world who have worked very hard on their subjects for their lifetime. And so I’m just lucky, I guess, is the right word, you know, that the Nobel Prize has chosen to honour this particular area of science at this time, you know.
AS: Nicely put. It was a long time ago, it was 40 years ago that you first produced colloidal nanoparticles.
LB: Yes, I began to work on this in the early 1980s. And it was for me, it was an accidental discovery. I wasn’t intending to work on it. I was using semiconductor particles for chemistry purposes, for spectroscopic purposes, studying chemical reactions on the surfaces of semiconductor particles. And we made smaller and smaller particles just empirically, you know, by using recipes. And I began to notice that the spectra of the particles began to change and I didn’t understand that and I don’t think anyone did at that point. And so I slowly, rather than studying the chemistry that occurs on the surface of the particles, I shifted into studying the basic physics and chemistry of the particles themselves, trying to understand this science evolution. What goes on here is this evolution from molecules to bulk solids or bulk semiconductors as a particle becomes larger. Smaller ones, really small ones, behave just as simple molecules in chemistry. And as they get bigger, they take on more and more solid-state characteristics. So that’s half of what we did, basically, this kind of fundamental knowledge or trying to understand this evolution with size. And the other half is that you actually make the particles, you know, and that allows them to be used in the televisions, you know, for quantum dots and televisions and things of that sort.
AS: But the important point there is taking notice of the questions as they reveal themselves to you.
LB: That’s right. It was accidental, you know, and so then we just realized that it would be important. You know, at that time, I was working at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey. And, you know, that was, the laboratories were part of the electronics industry, the semiconductor chip industry. And I knew for sure that as the particles, you know, the semiconductors, they were trying always to make smaller and smaller transistors. And when they succeeded, if they succeeded, you know, they would reach this size regime where the properties began to change to become more molecule like rather than semiconductor like. And so for that reason, I knew that this research, you know, would be valuable in that context.
AS: Yes. Of course, the environment of Bell Labs was legendary for promoting enquiry.
LB: Yes, that’s what I was trying to make the point in the beginning, you know, that it’s a collaborative effort. And so I was able to talk. I mean, basically, the culture of the laboratory was, well, you know, I’m a physical chemist and a chemist and I, there were experts in all different subjects, mostly physics inside of Bell Laboratories. And I was able to talk to all of these people. The culture was such that their doors were open. And when I had a question, you know, I wanted to learn something quickly, I could just go to find somebody who was an expert on the subject and knock on his door and go in and discuss it with him. So that was an excellent, you know, unique way to make progress in an area which is not traditional.
AS: So many people have tried to recapture that spirit of the Bell Labs. It’s hard somehow.
LB: Yes, it is hard. I mean, you know, the basic research is not really a good fit for industry, you know, in the sense that the results of basic research are just so unpredictable, you know, you can’t really tell it’s going to help one in business or one product line in one company over another. It’s best to try and do it in the university, you know, the context or research institution context.
LB: You know Janelia Farms in… There’s a biophysics institute in Virginia, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. And that captures some of the flavour of the old Bell Labs.
AS: That’s right. Eric Betzig, another chemistry laureate, he worked there, didn’t he, for a while? Yes.
LB: That’s right. Betzig was a collaborator of mine in Bell Labs before he left, you know, he was out of science for a period of time and then he came back in, working at the Janelia Farms. I published a couple of papers with him in the early days.
AS: Again, this inquiring mind and wide-ranging interest and somehow knowing to focus on what matters. There’s an art to it. But who knows what that art is?
LB: Yes, you have to give the credit to the management of Bell Labs as well. Basically, because they allowed me to continue to work on the subject once they understood, you know, that it was important. And that was before the outside world understood it was important, you know, it was not something that was worked on in academic life in universities or in other companies. That was always the strength of Bell Labs. We tried to work on things that… It’s always best to try to do research on something that is an empty field and other people don’t really think about and there is opportunity to make progress.
AS: This is a fascinating discussion. And I can’t keep you on the phone for too long. I just… I noticed on your website, you summarize all your life’s work as being ‘trying to understand what electrons are doing’. And I love that.
LB: Yes, so I used to work many… when I was very young, I was coming out of school, I worked on small molecules. You know, three and five and seven atoms and things like that. But it’s… There, the question is the same. What are the electrons doing in that, in those small molecules? And how to understand it? And it’s the same question in solid state chemistry. You know, it’s just a larger, larger piece of matter.
AS: And the question just keeps on expanding. The more you look, the more you have to ask. How does the prospect of the days ahead with some extra interest in you and your work strike you?
LB: What I will do in the coming weeks and so forth is just try and discuss all of this with people who are interested. Just to promote the chemistry and this area of basic science. You know, it’s become important now, but it was not important years ago and so forth.
AS: It’s been such a pleasure to speak to you. Thank you.
LB: Thank you for calling.
AS: Thank you, and congratulations.
LB: Yes, bye.
Did you find any typos in this text? We would appreciate your assistance in identifying any errors and to let us know. Thank you for taking the time to report the errors by sending us an e-mail.