2016 Nobel Lectures: The lords of the ring on a fantastic voyage

Apparently it takes a Nobel Prize in chemistry for getting me back on the blog :D
And I didn’t even do it…. This is a guest post from Mathieu, do you remember the Mario Bross column chromatography? Well, that guy there. He is now working in Stockholm and he went to the Nobel Prize lecture few days ago. This is what happened:


While this week most of the focus in Netherlands was on the Sinterklass celebrations, the Dutch chemistry community had all its eyes upper north, in Stockholm where were held the long awaited Nobel lectures…

In spite of a grey sky, the Nordic gods were kind enough to provide lenient temperatures for celebrating the event. Kids and seniors gathered around the Aula Magnus auditorium, ready to attend a nice day of lectures.

At the entrance, small posters and abstracts are given to the audience to make sure that everybody can get acquainted with the topics to be presented.


After a brief introduction from the President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the floor is given to the chairman for the Physics session, which gives a brief introduction of the laureates, rewarded for their work on “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”, and welcomes Duncan Haldane on stage, who has the heavy charge of waking-up the whole auditorium on this grey December morning.

As a chemist, making sense from all the equations we learn in Physics has always been a frustrating struggle, the apprehension was therefore quite high for me so I read three times the abstract and small posters provided before the lecture to make sure that I will not be lost after two slides…

Luckily the laureate starts by a reassuring statement, saying that he will do his best to make the discussed concepts and results understandable to the whole audience. Unfortunately his efforts prove rapidly useless… Heavy equations with obscure terms appear on the first slides, concepts unheard before are taken for granted, graphs shaped like attempts to summon the demons, every slide is a reminder of the darkest hours of Physics class.


In spite of the science which was to say the least hard to follow, a great humanity is reflected by the personality of the laureate and the small side stories with universal messages still made this lecture really interesting until its end.

After a round of applause, the chairman concludes “Thank you very much for this very inspiring and I guess to many of you challenging lecture” (great, I may be not as stupid as I thought after all, even the chairman found it challenging), and introduces the next laureate, Michael Kosterlitz.

The hopes of a second lecture more easy to follow are immediately swiped away by a first slide focusing on some phase transitions equations if I understood correctly. Luckily this slide was not here only to speak about its contents but to introduce a small anecdote with the take home message that “ideas that seem simple on the surface can reveal to be really deep” helping the whole audience to come back in the game for the rest of the lecture which had its share of interesting concepts but as the previous one was hard to follow. Sentences such as « Those of you who have done electrodynamics in arbitrary dimensions will immediately recognise this logarithm as a Coulomb interaction » makes one realise that either you are in the wrong audience or that the speaker is optimistically overestimating the general knowledge and skills from the people listening to him.

Towards the end, he briefly stops his lecture to focus on a panel showed to him from the backstage and reads out-loud “you have zero minute left”, making the audience laugh and precipitating the conclusions of this lecture.


After a well-deserved standing ovation for the three physics laureates, and brief break to help the audience recovering from this hardcore session of Physics, it is now time to relax and enjoy to some good old organic chemistry!

Olof Ramström, member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, plays here the role of chairman to introduce the laureates, and welcomes Jean-Pierre Sauvage on stage, punning on that his name fits well the wild nature of the Science he’s about to present.

After a few introduction words in which some emotion can be heard, he starts presenting his research and from the first slide we know that we are up for a great moment. As a French, he probably feels obliged to show a bit of arrogance, saying “we decided to publish in French because we had the feeling that perhaps it would become an important paper”, which by far does not reflect the humility he shows during the rest of the lecture. Catenanes and rotaxanes are of course at the heard of the lecture, with their description always accompanied by funny or interesting anecdotes and illustrated by simple graphics, making the whole audience hang onto every word he says. Suddenly we realise that the time is already over and we have to move on to the next laureate, Sir Fraser Stoddart.


Following the tracks of J.-P. Sauvage, he starts with a clear introduction on the field and presents the work performed in his lab during the past decades. A small pin on his vest reminds of his olympiadane molecules which are among the first to be introduced, and for which he regrets that the olympic committee didn’t appreciate enough the beauty of these chemical structures to found his research. He then describes the mechanisms of formation of rotaxanes and illustrates their applications as storage of information, to finally present in a nice animation the molecular pump.

He ends his presentation by countless acknowledgments, and a nicely designed animated slide with around 400 names fading in and out, reminding a bit of a movie’s end credits, and humbly showing that behind a Nobel laureate many students, technicians, PhD, postdocs sweat tears and blood for getting some results.


Luckily for the audience these end credits didn’t mean the end of the movie, and the floor is then given to Ben Feringa for the grand finale of this chemistry session. Feeling at ease, he does not stay behind the lecturer’s stand but rather goes around the stage, making his lecture more alive. Like his fellow chemist laureates, he introduces the advances in his field during the past decades, from the first switchable molecule to the nanocar, passing by the design of motors and their ability to move macro objects, always illustrated by graphs, images and animation which hopefully helped the audience to get a grasp on his advances.


Ben also takes the opportunity to teach a great lesson on how to learn chirality the hard way :

« if as a small boy you step in the wrong shoe [note that as a dutch he talks here about wooden shoes obviously], it hurts so bad that you remember your whole life the difference between left and right »

He later gives one good reason to (re)visit the Nobel museum in Stockholm: He has offered them a model of the first ever made electric car, developed as early as 1835 by Prof. Stratingh (who gave his name to the chemistry research department in Groningen), and also a small vial containing the nanocar (well, billions of them…).

Finally, as a conclusion to his lecture and to this whole morning of inspiring talks, he closes his presentation by addressing to the young audience: “Imagine the unimaginable.”

The three chemistry laureates are then welcomed on stage for a round of applauses and a long standing ovation, concluding the 2016 Nobel Lectures in Chemistry.


Nobel laureates play an important role both in the whole society and in the scientific community, to whom they owe to provide guidance and inspiration. As soon as they are awarded the prize, they are not simple scientists anymore but giants which become part of our History and on whose shoulders the current and future generations should be able to confidently stand.

Having here an opportunity to see these six scientists making their first steps as acknowledged giants was a great chance. It was also interesting to see the differences on how they apprehend their new role, some preferring to stick to their field and introduce their past achievements as solid bases for opening on a bright future, others broadening the scope of their research in order to inspire rather than teach.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences obviously awarded the prize to great personalities this year, both in Physics and Chemistry, let’s now wait for next year and see what they’re up to!!

by @Mathieu_CD

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