To creativity, and conviction

The physicist David Thouless passed away earlier this month. I confess I didn’t know much about him or his work until he won a part of the Nobel Prize for physics in 2016. After that, I read up about his work and had my mind blown, mostly motivated by a phenomenon in condensed-matter physics called BKT transitions, where the ‘T’ stands for Thouless, as well as his contributions to our understanding of superconductivity. I’ve explained BKT transitions before (here), fairly simple to understand. I admired that Thouless was an imaginative physicist with the confidence to admit uncertainty and the conviction to consider possibilities that others might have thought crazy. His biography on the Nobel Prize website is very informative. Gautam Menon at Asoka University recently shared the following nugget on his Facebook page:

Reading this, I remember thinking that the 2016 Nobel Prizes chemistry were also particularly interesting, enough for me to temporarily set aside my issues with this quasi-institution. The physics prize went to three men who used deceptively simple ideas from geometry to explain quantum phase transitions. The chemistry prize went to three men who built nano-machines by assembling individual molecules in intricate ways. (And the literature prize went to Bob Dylan.) And like Thouless’s experience at his university narrated above, one of the chemistry laureates had a tough time as well.

J. Fraser Stoddart, who won a share of the chemistry prize for synthesising molecules linked like chain-links and for building a ‘molecular shuttle’, wrote an essay in 2005 that I can’t seem to find now, probably because the website it was hosted on was revamped after he won the prize and the URL was changed as a result. However, I’d quoted some portions of it in my article in The Wire, excerpted below:

In an autobiographical essay written in 2005, Stoddart outlines the way his brand of chemistry research evolved – had to evolve – for scientists to get to molecular machines. … [He] writes how one phase of his work began in 1981 at Sheffield University when he wanted to improve the performance of a herbicide and ended with his entry into molecular electronics – on the way synthesising machines called catenanes and rotaxanes.

A short time later, Jean-Pierre Sauvage and his lab at the Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, France, were able to show that there existed a simpler way of synthesising catenanes and rotaxanes en masse. As a result, Stoddart’s lab was able to produce the supramolecules they needed in large quantities as well as build on Sauvage’s method to improve them. This led to a breakthrough in 1991, when Stoddart’s team published a more efficient way to synthesise rotaxanes. And only a year later, the group was involved in the design and construction of bistable mechanical switches – molecules that could exist in two states like ‘on’ or ‘off’ depending on some external conditions.

But in order to get as far, the man had to reinvent himself and seek … international collaborations in the face of much resistance from his colleagues. He wrote, “Any successes, however modest, only seemed to engender envy and resentment amongst some of my senior and influential colleagues who would then go to any lengths to undermine my academic activities.” So in the 1980s, Stoddart started to write to the national press about “the wantonness and waste I witnessed all around me. I questioned the extremely high level of bureaucratic state control that accompanied the hierarchically manipulated allocation of financial and other resources to research in science and engineering in Britain”. … Eventually, he was able to persuade some university administrators to send his grant proposals to be reviewed in the United States. Stoddart’s lab then began actively collaborating with the Americans from around 1984.

However, his tribulations weren’t yet at an end. In the 1990s, Stoddart faced yet more resistance from the wider community of supramolecular chemists who refused to believe that nanoscale machines of the kind Stoddart had helped build could exist. … Though Stoddart doesn’t say he was ridiculed, he does say that “it was in response to a ridiculously high level of skepticism and criticism” that he fell back on the use of less exotic techniques to establish what he had accomplished was legitimate. After that, he was able to set up a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he continued to work on building molecular machines into the late 1990s.

But despite these troubles, Stoddart also did not give up on working on what he found interesting, when he could just as easily have staved off the criticism and ill-will by shifting to research on more conventional topics. He concluded the same essay with the following words about the molecules he had synthesised to build the things he had wanted to build:

What will they be good for? Something for sure, and we still have the excitement of finding out what that something might be. And so the story goes on…