Paul C. Lauterbur


Interview, December 2003

Interview with 2003 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine Paul C. Lauterbur, 11 December 2003. The interviewer is Peter Sylwan, science writer.

Professor Lauterbur talks about his experiences during the Nobel week; the discovery of magnetic resonance imaging and how it was received (3:21); his previous research in chemistry (12:08); and prospects for the future (13:52).

Interview transcript

Welcome to the Nobel E-museum to meet Professor Paul Lauterbur, one of the Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine for 2003. First of all Professor Paul Lauterbur, congratulations to the prize. You must have heard this 1,000 times in the days passing.

Paul Lauterbur: Very good experience and I’m certainly happy that it happened.

Today it’s the afternoon, the day after the big day, it’s almost a little cruel to ask you to come here to answer a lot of questions but what are your feelings today after this big event?

Paul Lauterbur: I’m beginning to believe it’s real. It’s a very overwhelming experience, the whole week, which is almost over, but my wife and I were discussing just last night that there is a sense of unreality almost, because of course not our usual working day or week and you never know exactly what it is going to be like.

What will be the strongest memories you will bring back home from these days?

Paul Lauterbur: The first thing that comes to mind is some of the guests I arranged to come here, some people I’d not seen in many cases for many years who were very important in my early work and making it possible and encouraging me and collaborating with me. In general I was happy to see them all and happy that they all enjoyed one another’s company as well.

One of the strongest memories I will remember is the way you described how your science emerged and the sort of struggle between the chemist and physicist in the early days.

Paul Lauterbur: Oh yes. Of course I’m happy that the Nobel organization has been relaxed about the official designation of laureates in various categories, which it was not always I understand from history, 50–100 years ago, there were sometimes serious debates about whether someone is a proper scientist of a certain kind but so far as I could tell from the selection of laureates in recent years the Nobel people really do understand in their hearts how unified the various disciplines are.

When the idea came up of using magnetic resonance, what did the physicist say about your idea?

Paul Lauterbur: The first reaction at least was always scepticism, including the reactions of Nobel Laureates. However, unlike some other people the second reaction, sometimes within minutes, was I was mistaken. Now that shows a quality of mind that was able to live with the fact that you have made a public error in a major matter and to apologise for it immediately. Not everyone has the self-confidence and largess of spirit to make it possible for them to do that. Some of the most vigorous objections were some people who quickly became the most intelligent about it.

It has passed some time since the first ideas come up and the first experiments were done so there is the possibility to put this into perspective. What would you say is the greatest significance of the possibility of using magnetic resonance imaging?

Paul Lauterbur: The goal that drew my attention to the problem was medical diagnosis. What really captured my personal interest was that the solution was one of these ideas that in retrospect seems perfectly obvious and could have been done any time in the proceeding 20 years but was not. It was also a novel kind of science that had not been thought of before. So that, not /- – -/ applications but that immediate kind of mental response is the most exciting to a working scientist.

But it was a very big shift in paradigm going from radiology to magnetic phenomena?

Paul Lauterbur: The shift of paradigm was that there was no previous example of applying the kind of techniques to making images that I was proposing and, as is the case with any good idea, one of the first responses of many people was oh of course, why not, those who were not totally sceptical but that again is a well-known phenomenon that the better the idea is the more simple and intuitive it seems to be to some people which makes them think it’s trivial. However, if it really is trivial why did not some of the best people in the world who are doing the work think of it in the previous 20 years?

And why didn’t they?

Paul Lauterbur: Because they were thinking about physics in a too limited way. As I used to say, it was good to be working with undergraduates in my laboratory because they had not yet learned too much to believe in what we were doing.

Ignorance might sometimes be a help.

Paul Lauterbur: People who are intentionally educated but have not risen beyond their education have a tendency to mistake practical approximations in using calculations for fundamental principles. That is one of the things that you try to bring to students in a proper education and it doesn’t always work but it’s a difficult trick of mind to have worked hundreds of homework problems with a professor telling you you’re making mistakes about something and then to have someone propose something that says all of this work that you’ve been doing is simply a practical approximation to a calculation trick and you’re supposed to think beyond that, which is not always easy. That’s why there’s a long apprenticeship in science and most people continue even after years relying upon what is called in English, I don’t know about Swedish, a rule of thumb, approximations that simple calculations and problems to make them easier to do but that is not the real science, that is just a helpful trick.

The history of science is very often connected to new instruments and hands shift in paradigm or quite a new way of looking on the world. I mean Galileo and the telescope and Leeuwenhoek and the microscope. So what about the MRI and Lauterbur?

Paul Lauterbur: Not quite the same. There are many ways of doing science but I had been working with the basics of nuclear magnetic resonance essentially all of my professional life and doing chemical structure and analytical measurements using nuclear magnetic resonance with no reference whatsoever to imaging because if anyone thought about it they didn’t even think it was impossible, it did not occur to them whether there was anything there to think about.

But in what way do you think that the possibility of looking into the body and looking into the brain, will it in a way change the way we look upon ourselves and the life we live or give us new explanations?

Paul Lauterbur: What forced me to think about the problem seriously was that I saw that such a non-invasive method would be very useful, but I had never heard of any way of solving that problem, not a hint. The actual idea formulated itself in a way that does have some generality, that is by looking at a problem metaphorically instead of right side up, upside down. I was in the middle

of a sentence, which one of my guests here, who was there at the time, reminded me of. I was describing how it was impossible to do any such thing because of certain problems with the physics of the measurements. Halfway through that sentence I realised that those problems were in fact the solution to the fundamental problem. At that point, right in the middle of a sentence was a paradigm shift and of course it took more than just one instant to work out a lot of the practical details but there was a moment where essentially was seeing a problem has actually been its own solution.

You are a chemist originally and now you are turning your attention to quite another area of science. You are very interested in the origin of life.

Paul Lauterbur: Yes, which is chemistry.

Which is chemistry. Have you started to formulate some new hypothesis about how life originated on earth?

Paul Lauterbur: Yes, but it’s very early. It’s something I’ve been officially working on only for about two years or so and so it’s premature to talk about.

You couldn’t give us a hint?

Paul Lauterbur: It’s very technical also. It involves a part of chemistry that people have known about for some years but no-one has thought was any significance and so there’s a paradigm shift there too but really I’d rather not talk about it because we’re trying to do some of the necessary experiments in my laboratory right now. I don’t know if at this exact moment, but I hope my students are working hard back home but if there’s one thing that you learn, you know, a lifetime in science, even though an idea seems very good to you, the personification of nature, mother nature, can say, Naughty boy, you have not been listening to me, you are totally wrong and you always have to go back to what nature is able to do.

But let’s, for a short while go back then to magnetic imaging. What is your prospect for the future? I mean how far can imaging be done? Or can you always find some new phenomena that could be used for imaging?

Paul Lauterbur: There are many kinds of results that are being found in a preliminary way, which I’m not actively involved with at the moment. I don’t have even a normal understanding of where some of these very new things will go since I have not been following them for two years or so. I don’t know where they will be going in the immediate future. I know there were things that I was working on a few years ago, as well as other people were, that seemed to me to have a great deal of potential, some of which I don’t really have any idea whether they are just clever tricks or whether they have real fundamental potential. I will have to wait, like everyone else, to find that out.

Thank you very much for sharing your time and sharing your ideas and experience with us.

Paul Lauterbur: You’re welcome.

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