How you are told you have won – and what happens next
I was in my room, discussing a project on light-controlled switchable antibiotics with my students, when the telephone rang. I had come to work in the lab in the morning as usual, and had never thought about what day it was. The chair of the Nobel committee was on the line. I sent the students away so I could talk with him quietly. He told me I had won the 2016 Nobel prize.
It came as a shock. When I was asked what I had to say, I had nothing to say. I was silent, flabbergasted; it had taken me by surprise, it was an amazing moment. I was also a bit uncertain whether it was real, because you never know these days. I heard from Fraser Stoddart later as we were on a radio show together; he also initially thought it might not be real. But the chair of the Nobel committee sounded fairly serious, and mentioned Fraser and Jean-Pierre Sauvage. After some minutes, he said: ‘Maybe you don’t believe me; let me introduce you to a few members of the Nobel committee standing around here with me.’ Jan-Erling Bäckvall came on the phone, who I’ve known for decades – he’s one of the heroes of catalysis. Then Heiner Linke spoke. I’d spent an entire week in Sweden at a nanoscale conference organised by him this summer, so when he said ‘Congratulations, Ben, this is real,’ I knew it was really true.
I was called back and had to keep the line open because of the announcement. What I did, to be honest, was put the phone on the hook and call my students in again to finish our discussion. Perhaps they had already guessed something had happened; I’m not sure. Afterwards, I went to my secretary and told her so we could cancel my meetings. We couldn’t say anything, but I had some time to relax a little bit. It was so unreal; you don’t know what’s about to happen to you. I called my wife and told her: ‘Maybe you should watch the television.’
You dream, sometimes, of such an award. And you look at the fantastic kinds of chemists there are, and your competitors, and people in the world that do absolutely great things. There are so many scientists, so many chemists, that deserve a Nobel. I realise my name was mentioned a few times in the public press – including in The Simpsons – but I always thought, ‘OK, there are so many excellent scientists, why would they ever choose me?’ I was not very busy thinking about it; if you constantly think about how to win a gold medal at the Olympics, that is not a very good way to win a gold medal. It’s much better to work and exercise and do your job. So that’s what I did.
During these first moments, I have to admit, I felt 30 years of emotion. Winning a Nobel prize isn’t something you do in a day, a week or a year. This was 30 years, starting as a young academic and slowly building up my group. We’ve had a lot of disappointments, but also breakout moments, and all of these passed by quickly in my mind: all the hard work, the emotions, the frustrations and the beautiful moments that you celebrate. I remembered how I was also silent, how I couldn’t speak, when I saw something moving with our molecular motors for the first time.
I’m fairly privileged, like others in academia, to work with talented young men and women – undergraduates, PhDs, postdocs and coworkers. Over the years, several generations of students have passed through my labs and it’s a great privilege to have the brightest people around you every day. I don’t want to pick someone special out. We work together with many groups and each individual student contributed. I have a group with a lot of interests. It’s not just motors, we also work on smart materials and dynamic functions, catalysis and photopharmacology. It’s all this combined effort that made this possible – and that makes molecular machines work.