Interview with Professor Ivar Giaever by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 54th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2004.
Professor Giaever talks about celebrating being awarded the Nobel Prize, his move from Norway to Canada and the USA (2:03), how he got the job at General Electrics despite low grades (4:39), the reasons why he became an entrepreneur (9:53), his thoughts about research (13:48) and also gives some advice to young students (15:45).
Read the interview
Professor Giaever, welcome to us and thank you for being here with us today. When you received the prize back in 1973, you were three laureates who shared it.
Ivar Giaever: Yes.
You came from very different backgrounds, you hadn’t worked together. How was your reaction when you realised you shared it with these three people, and that you of course got a third of it yourself?
Ivar Giaever: Actually I only got a half.
Yes. that’s right.
Ivar Giaever: Brian Josephson got a half and Leo Esaki and I the rest.
That’s right, yes.
Ivar Giaever: It is of course very exciting when you get a Nobel Prize, but to me it was very unexpected.
Was it completely unexpected, or had you heard some rumours?
Ivar Giaever: No, I hadn’t heard any. A few years before, maybe, I forget, two, three years before there was a big meeting in tunnelling in Copenhagen in Denmark. I heard then that someone had suggested me for the Nobel Prize, so at that fall I was a little nervous. But then I said forget about it. And I felt this way about it that if the superconductive tunnelling had become practical, I thought I would get a Nobel Prize. If it does not become practical, I won’t make it. That was my feelings, so when I got it I was surprised.
What happened? Did you celebrate? You came to Stockholm, was it a great occasion at the time?
Ivar Giaever: It was a fantastic occasion because I worked for General Electric at the time and Coolidge was a famous General Electric researcher who had invented the x-ray tube and what not. He actually really deserved a Nobel Prize, but it was his birthday the next day and General Electric had prepared for a huge celebration, so when I got a Nobel Prize I got all the champagne and they had to redo it for him the next day.
You said you were working at General Electric. You left Norway at quite an early age to move to Canada and eventually you came to the United States. What made you leave Norway and with what kind of spirit did you go?
Ivar Giaever: I was not a very good student and I had mediocre grades from Norway, but I had no difficulty at getting a job, but I could not get a place to live. This was in 1952-53 and it was impossible to get a place to live. I was married with a child, and we tried to do that and we couldn’t do it. Then what precipitated the move was that I roomed with a friend of mine in Oslo. My wife stayed up in the country with her parents with the child. He said: You have to go and register to a waiting line, and I said: No, I’m not going to do that because a waiting line is eight years. I’m not going to wait for eight years, no way. He said: Register anyway. He took me down to the office and I registered and then the guy said: Where does your wife live? and I said: Up in the country with her parents. And he said: You can’t register now because your wife doesn’t live in Oslo. I recognised this is what we call “catch 22” in the United States and so I left. I got so … I didn’t get mad, but I recognised I wanted to leave, so I went to Canada because it was very easy to get a visa to Canada at that time. United States took about a year, but I left actually three weeks later to Canada.
In what spirit did you leave? You seem to be a person who goes out, looks for opportunities, a very entrepreneurial spirit. Did you have that with you from the beginning?
Ivar Giaever: In Canada?
When you left.
Ivar Giaever: No, I don’t think so. I think that’s something I’ve learned in America, in Canada and in the United States. When I got to Canada it was very, very difficult to get a job because Canadian economy even today is seasonal. I came there before Christmas and they said: Merry Christmas, why don’t you come back in the Spring when we hire people? We came to Canada with $200, that’s because that’s all the money you’re allowed to bring out of Norway; $100 per person, so I know exactly what kind of money I’ve had.
How did you make do then?
Ivar Giaever: It was not as bad as all that because my wife had a sister in Canada, so they helped us out. Then I got eventually a job with General Electric, and I was very fortunate because if I hadn’t been at General Electric I wouldn’t have become what I became.
Were you into science already then? Did you know you wanted to do research?
Ivar Giaever: No. Absolutely not. As I said I was a mediocre student and when I worked in Canada, General Electric had a course, they called it A course and a B course and a C course for over three years to try to teach engineers more science. At that time it wasn’t common to have a PhD degree in engineering. I took the A course in Canada and I liked that a lot and I worked very hard. Sooner or later you’ve got to work hard to catch up for what you haven’t done. Then they didn’t have the B course, but in the United States they had a B course. I also found out that they made 30 percent more money in the United States than in Canada, so the choice was easy. I left and went to the United States.
To tell the true story really, as I said, in Norway I had very bad grades and in Norway the grades were such that one zero is the best you can get, six zero is the worst you can get and four zero you’re just about failing, like a D in the United States. I got four zero in mathematics and four zero in physics. When I got down to General Electric, I was interviewed and the guy says: Oh, I see you have good grades, four zero in mathematics and four zero in physics, so you must be pretty good, because of course four zero is the best you can get in the United States. I’m normally an honest person, but I have to admit that I just mumbled something at that particular point. I didn’t think that was the right time to explain to him what the difference in grade meant.
That was a way of really being entrepreneurial, wasn’t it?
Ivar Giaever: No, I don’t really like to lie and I really didn’t lie, but I mumbled something.
You stayed on at General Electric didn’t you? I mean what kind of an environment was it?
Ivar Giaever: It was wonderful when I came because General Electric had this what they call the test program and they hired engineers and you could work with different people for maybe an assignment for three to six months at the time. I worked, I came down to Connecticut in New York. I looked at all the people who were there and I picked up the most famous people. And the people said: Oh no, you shouldn’t do that because these people are very difficult to work for. But I stuck to that, and I wanted to work for these famous people and that paid off very generously for me.
In which way were they inspiring you, these people?
Ivar Giaever: Because they were people who were exceedingly well thought of, were very good. I worked for a German mathematician for example named Buechner. He was a fantastic person, and it worked this way. Then I thought I was going to be an applied mathematician, so I worked with him, then at that time, right before the computers really, so we worked in parallel. We have a problem and then you have to write down the equations, square root of two and plus and minus, and you make mistakes. Every week we worked in parallel and then every week we compared the results. And every week when we got in there, if we did not agree, he calmly took my paper and said: Let me see where you have gone wrong. I was always wrong and he was always right, so I recognised I couldn’t compete with him so I had to do something simpler like physics.
It seems that during your time at General Electric … You both had to feed a family and you were working very hard and you learnt a lot. Was there a change? You said you went into physics, did you then realise that science was your topic?
Ivar Giaever: As I said I was on this General Electric program where you have different assignments and I had an assignment at General Electric research lab. Then I made what I call my biggest discovery. I discovered that people could get paid for doing research. I was completely flabbergasted. I never even heard of that. And these people ran around, sat on the windowsill discussed things, wrote on the blackboard, looked like they had a good time. I said that’s what I wanted to do, so after I was finished I went and I asked if I could get a job there. And I was fortunate, they hired me on a trial period for a year, and they never said I was hired really. Nobody remembered I was hired on a trial, or something. I was very lucky because basically they don’t hire people who don’t have a PhD degree, so I was just lucky. There was a man named John Fisher who took care of me. He was a wonderful person.
Did any of this spirit that you have carried with you filtered down to your children, or to people around you? Have they learnt from you?
Ivar Giaever: I don’t know. I can’t call on that. I’m very happy with my kids and my wife, and my kids have been very successful. I have one child who’s in biophysics and has a PhD degree and working for Stanford, so they’ve all done very well in their own field.
In one of your lectures that I recently heard, you were talking about how to start the business and specifically for United States, but there were some general tips and ideas that you came up with. For you, what was the reason to become an entrepreneur and start your own business a few years back?
Ivar Giaever: The reason for that was that in 1988 I left General Electric. The reason I left General Electric is that we got a new director and his motto or whatever you want to call it, was that from now on, he said, all research has to be directly connected with present General Electric processes and products. I was working with biology and I wasn’t connected at all. It wasn’t that he didn’t like my work, but I was sort of an embarrassment because I was not directly connected with General Electric, so we decided in a sort of mutual decision that I should leave, and I’m very happy that I left. I should have left before as a matter of fact because I like it at the university, so that was very good. But I worked with a friend at General Electric named Charles Keese and when I left to RPI, he wasn’t willing to go. Then I went and after a year he said: I’d like to come too, but then I lost my negotiation powers. I didn’t have any powers because I already was there, so he came on soft money. That means in the United States that you have to get grants to support yourself, and we found out that to be very difficult and then we decided that it was maybe easier to get grants for doing business. You can get that in the United States, called a SBIR program, small business innovating research program. This is a wonderful program where they then give grants to small businesses to try out things and we were successful in doing that. But when we started the business, I was not very happy about that because I didn’t really regard myself as a business person, but now I’m very happy about it because it’s a different thing.
You said in your lecture that scientists are not good business people, is that true?
Ivar Giaever: That is probably true because you think, I mean what you think is that here you do this wonderful science, this wonderful thing, and now people will come and buy these things from you, but they absolutely don’t because what you do is very difficult, to get it known among the people who need these things. And scientists also tend to be careful, so you do science, you want to have things exactly right, you want to do this and that. When you’re in business you can’t afford that. If you do something and it works, you’ve got to go with that because otherwise you have nothing. But if you’re a scientist, oh no I want to work on this for another couple of years, see if I can make it better. In that sense, I don’t think scientists are good businessmen including myself.
What did you do in your business to make it shoot up?
Ivar Giaever: We started this business, my friend and I, Charlie Keese and I, and basically we started the business to get money to do research. We weren’t really thinking so much of making a real business, but a few years ago we got, as a third person joining us, a very wonderful guy named Chris Dennett who knows how to sell things, he knows how to market things. He came and said: You know ‘I’d like to join you guys, and that was a good decision on us and now we work together all three of us and it looks like it’s working out very well. By the time this is actually going on to the internet, we’ll probably be all broke, but that’s ok.
When you were doing the research for your business, you must have had setbacks. And there must have been times in your life where there have been setbacks. You have done certain experiments in research and it doesn’t always go as quick …
Ivar Giaever: Oh no, it never does that, but there are various different ways of doing research, and the way I like to do research, I like to do simple things and I like to know, I like to get the answer in a reasonable time. Since I’ve worked in an industrial lab, the good way to succeed in industry is to know a lot, not very deep, but know a lot of different things, a combination of things. Not digging very deep because you really can’t make much use of that normally. We are best to have a sort of a knowledge for everything, and therefore, I’d like to work in interdisciplinary fields and I really think I’m good at that. Unfortunately, in the United States it’s very difficult to get funded for that and all the agencies say that they love interdisciplinary work, but none of them has any money to give away and I think that’s not a good thing.
The business you’re in now would you describe that? It’s more to test for cancer patients mainly?
Ivar Giaever: No, it’s not. It’s really to look at cells in tissue culture. It could become clinical, it could do that, but it’s not at the present time. Our customers are professors like myself, except professors in biology, who do research but on mammalian cells and other kinds of cells. It’s a research instrument and therefore, the business, if it gets clinical, is bound to be small, it never will grow because it’s basically a limited number of customers.
Advice to young people who want to go into science today, or who are already studying maybe, and see that it’s difficult to find a possibility to do the basic research and has to be more worried about the future of having to maybe go into the industry and applied research, which is more common today. What is your advice? How could one think?
Ivar Giaever: Let me tell you what John Fisher told me when I came to General Electric. When I came I was then 30 years old and I said to him that I’d really like to learn some physics, but actually I know I’m too old to make any discovery in physics because most physicists do that when they’re in their twenties or something. John said to me: No, no you’re not too old, he said. You make discoveries when you’re learning. If you start learning at 30, you can still make discoveries. And, he said, I give you the advice that when you’ve worked in physics for a while maybe you should change your field again because then you learn again. The fun thing in life is just learning different things. I don’t understand this business about fundamental science and basic research and applied research and things because I don’t think people recognise that we know almost everything today. The science is not an infinite field, it’s a finite field and a certain number of rules and we practically know all the rules in science today. People don’t agree with me with that, but that’s my particular feeling. So therefore, I think that if I give people advice today I think the action is going to be making inventions in the future. I think that’s what people should try to do. See how they can make invention, how they make things better, how they combine different things. I think that’s where the action is going to be. Like the laser for example is really an invention. Take the knowledge of what they had and invent the laser. Magnetic imaging is an invention and people should just think about how can they do things better and invent things better. There are no new laws that are going to come out, maybe one or two, but basically we know most of the things.
What is the big challenge then if you look at the medical side for example?
Ivar Giaever: I work in biology and there is no law in biology. All the laws in biology comes from chemistry and physics, but the exciting thing is to work in biology because it’s easy to state problems and a lot of unknown things. For example, I sit here and talk to you and tomorrow you’ll remember hopefully some of that. That means that I have changed your brain. Maybe I have damaged your brain, I don’t know.
I hope not.
Ivar Giaever: But the point is that we don’t know what I changed in your brain, we just know it’s changed. I think that will be a wonderful problem to work on for a young person. You know it’s a very difficult problem, but it’s a very easy problem to state, and in physics we don’t have those problems anymore.
Thank you professor. It was really nice talking to you and I shall remember. Thank you.
Ivar Giaever: You’re welcome.
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