Willard S. Boyle


Interview, December 2009

Interview with the 2009 Nobel Laureates in Physics Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, 6 December 2009. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.

Nobel Minds 2009

The 2009 Nobel Laureates met at the Bernadotte Library in Stockholm on 9 December 2009 for the traditional round-table discussion and TV program ‘Nobel Minds’. The Laureates discussed the controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, climate change data and science’s integrity in the face of political policy.

Participants of the 2009 edition of Nobel Minds were the Nobel Laureates in Physics Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith; the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Stetz and Ada E. Yonath; the Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak; the Laureates in Economic Sciences Elinor Ostrom and Oliver E. Williamson. Program host: Zeinab Badawi.

Interview, October 2009

Telephone interview with Willard S. Boyle recorded on 7 October 2009, the day following the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.

Interview transcript

[Willard Boyle] And a good morning to you, sir!

[Adam Smith] Good morning to you! And, of course, congratulations.

[WB] Well, thank you very much.

[AS] It’s been …

[WB] I gather you were talking to George Smith?

[AS] Yes, yesterday.

[WB] That’s good. Oh yesterday even?

[AS] In fact, there was a slight mix-up and he didn’t receive the call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Science because he missed it, he woke up but didn’t actually get to the telephone. So, when I spoke to him, he hadn’t actually heard the news yet!

[WB] Oh my gosh! When was that?

[AS] Well, pretty close to the announcement time, just a few minutes after the public announcement in Stockholm.

[WB] Oh, so he did year about it, though, yesterday morning.

[AS] Yes, yes, exactly, just within … it was just maybe five minutes after the public announcement so …

[WB] Oh, well, then that’s no problem.

[AS] No, but …

[WB] I haven’t spoken to him, you see. I haven’t spoken to him for a long time. And so I was a little curious how’s he doing?

[AS] Well, he sounded well. I asked him whether he was still sailing around the world and he said, no, he’d stopped that now and the sailing vessel was docked out at the end of the garden.
[WB] Sure.

[AS] You two used to sail together, I gather?

[WB] Yes, I’ve sailed with him over in Numea. In the South Pacific for a couple of weeks.

[AS] Goodness. And, we’re calling you now at home in Nova Scotia, which is where you were brought up, I gather?

[WB] That is correct, yes. So, yes, mostly my primary education was in Nova Scotia.

[AS] And, indeed, high school was the first school you attended. Until then you were home schooled, is that right?

[WB] That is correct, yes. My mother taught me and she did, I guess, a fairly good job.

[AS] Apparently so! I wanted to ask you how the last 24 hours have been, actually, since the news arrived?

[WB] The last 24 hours have been busy! The likes of which I’ve never experienced before.

[AS] Are you enjoying the experience?

[WB] A little bit more, yes. But there are little things that have to be tidied up. And I think I’ve done my series of interviews with the press. And you run out of a certain number of things to talk about with them.

[AS] Oh dear, well, at the risk of exploring some of the same ground, here goes! May I ask you a little bit about your time at Bell Labs because so many have said what a special atmosphere it was.

[WB] Absolutely.

[AS] And, of course, you know, it’s now finished. But something about it was right. Can you describe what that was?

[WB] Yes, I think the atmosphere set up by the management was very conducive to people being creative. In other words, it’s become fashionable here in North America, for example, to demand that one has a plan, some kind of a financial plan when they’re given a grant for doing research work here; ‘Now you must develop a plan and tell us what you’re going to do in the first year, and the second year, and the third year and so on of this grant of yours. And what your goal is, specifically in the way of profits and loses, and so on.’ And, you can’t possibly do that when you’re trying to do research of the kind of work that was going on in Bell Labs, because as you know … Have you counted up the number of Nobels from Bell Labs?

[AS] I never have but it’s a considerable number for sure. Do you know the number?

[WB] Well, it depends how you count it. There were people, you know, partially at the university, partially at Bell Labs. That was their secret of success, I think. But at least it was eight, and it could be two more than that even. Which is, you know, pretty good for an industrial research lab! So, I guess the other part that was very conducive to wanting to work there and enjoy it and so on, was that the management itself, they were not bureaucratic, they were not money bureaucrats, but rather they were scientists themselves. Now, Baker for example, maybe you’ve never heard of Baker? He was a chemist, and he was extremely bright and he was head of all research. And, he knew what was going on in every lab! And he’d pop around every now and then and maybe have lunch with you and so on and, ‘how are things going?’ So, he knew intimately all the people in research that mattered at all.

[AS] Yes, I’ve heard that approach described as ‘management by walking around’ …

[WB] Yes.

[AS] … being part of it all, yes.

[WB] And no … no yearly plans and things like that, ‘what are you going to achieve this year?’ You know, you can’t possibly describe that and it’s a waste of time.

[AS] And freedom to get involved in different things? You were seconded to the Apollo program for a while?

[WB] Oh yes, for two years.

[AS] And Bell Labs was happy to let you go off and do that?

[WB] Well, yes. At the end of two years, I quit and went back to my research lab. So, yes … and that was dreadfully trying and I had the utmost respect for the people that were working there. Very long hours and tremendous pressures to get things done and so on, and they were all very successful.

[AS] But a rather different environment, yes. And, this famous afternoon brainstorming meeting in which the CCD was conceived by you and George Smith; what led to it? Was it simply that you thought that you would sit down and have a brainstorm? Or were you under a directive to come up with something?

[WB] No directive. No directive, no. I was a laboratory director and George was the department head and so there were levels between us but we worked together regardless. And so there was … We had total freedom to do what we wanted to do. And we had done, and worked in many different areas. And we changed from one area to another, and …

[AS] I mean it was originally conceived as device that afternoon for increased memory storage but very quickly it became an imaging technology. When did the imaging application occur to you?

[WB] I guess at the same time. But, you know the first model that we made – that was another thing that was just so wonderful at Bell Labs: we could make models, seminconductor devices, and see whether they’d work or not. And we did that on various occasions. This was … when we made the CCD, it worked immediately and it was amazing! We never had that kind of luck before. And, actually, I think in the first paper it shows a photograph of an image made by a CCD. I think that you probably have the first paper.

[AS] And then, having developed it, did you stay with it for quite a while or was it something that you passed on to others and then went back to …

[WB] I guess I passed it on totally. And George was also heading up a group and I think his group continued and made more models and increased in complexity and diversity. And there was a one bit sensor and then it was increased and started to look quite interesting. So much so, as a matter of fact, that, well, we said, “Well, we’ve got something here that’s pretty good, we had better call it something.” And we tried various names for it even and finally settled on the CCD. We had other names and dismissed those, but that one seemed to stick and it did, it did stick. And we did that, I guess, very early, you know. As far as I know it was within a month or so of the first one that worked. But I don’t, you know, you don’t know these times exactly.

[AS] No, of course. It’s hard to piece it together in retrospect. So this was all forty years ago. Perhaps an obvious questions, but were you surprised to receive the call yesterday after so long?

[WB] Very much so! Very much so. Doubly surprised, really, because we had, from time to time, just because so many people around us had been winning Nobel Prizes, well, we sort of said, ‘well, our stuff is reasonable. It’s possible, you know, we’ll get something here, I don’t know!’ And, hoped for the best, but nothing had happened and so we’d pretty well dismissed it. And then, I guess, it was just before lights out last night with my wife, I said, “Well, you know, medicine was announced a couple of days ago, we’ll probably hear about physics and so, who knows, you know?” And she said, “Well, we know for sure because we’re not going to win because they always tell you at least a week ahead of time.” So, I … so we went to sleep feeling totally comfortable that we don’t have to worry about it; we’ll sleep in tomorrow morning a little bit. And, of course, the phone rang at five o’clock. And then she answered the phone. And all she did is, she came over and gave me a little whack, and she said, “Stockholm is calling!” And I said, “Oh, I suppose it’s that same old joker.” You know, somebody, at one time, actually had called us up I think, or at least we made this up, wouldn’t it be terrible if somebody called you? And so I knew it was real, however, because after a moment or two we heard this lovely voice and it’s from Stockholm. And there was this woman with a magnificent Swedish accent! And I suddenly thought, well, nobody is going to have gone to all that trouble just to fool us at five o’clock in the morning!

[AS] What a marvelous story. Perfect.

[WB] It’s absolutely true!

[AS] Lovely. It’s nice that the secret is still so well kept, that there was no leak at all.

[WB] Yes, totally. I have no idea how they just keep it so secret! I presume you get nominations from other winners of the Nobel Prize?

[AS] Yes, previous Nobel Laureates are entitled to nominate, that’s right.

[WB] Yeah, I suspect … I do know a couple of other winners, several as a matter of fact just because they were at Bell Labs, I guess. And, maybe they put in a good word for us, I don’t know. I don’t want to know.

[AS] No, it all stays secret for fifty years but one thing …

[WB] Good!

[AS] One thing one does know is one has to be nominated in the year of the award.

[WB] I see.

[AS] So, even if you’ve been nominated for twenty years previously, but you’re not nominated this year, you can’t be awarded the prize this year. So, after forty years, we know that somebody was still nominating for sure.

[WB] Isn’t that great? That’s surprising, you know, sort of, after all that time because some of the people, I’m sure that we knew so well, they’ve probably passed along.

[AS] Well, it’s been an enormous pleasure speaking to you.

[WB] Likewise.

[AS] And, I hope that you have an enjoyable rest of day.

[WB] I think we will.

[AS] Excellent, thank you very much indeed.

[WB] Nice talking to you.

[AS] OK, nice to talk to you, bye, bye.

[WB] Bye, bye.

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MLA style: Willard S. Boyle – Interview. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Fri. 8 Dec 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2009/boyle/interview/>

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