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Eric Betzig Is Not a Chemist, And I Don’t Much Care

Update: Betzig himself has shown up in the comments to this post, which just makes my day.
Yesterday’s Nobel in chemistry set off the traditional “But it’s not chemistry!” arguments, which I largely try to stay out of. For one thing, I don’t think that the borders between the sciences are too clear – you can certainly distinguish the home territories of each, but not the stuff out on the edge. And I’m also not that worked up about it, partly because it’s nowhere near a new phenomenon. Ernest Rutherford got his Nobel in chemistry, and he was an experimental physicist’s experimental physicist. I’m just glad that a lot of cutting-edge work in a lot of important fields (nanotechnology, energy, medicine, materials science) has to have a lot of chemistry in it.
With this in mind, I thought this telephone interview with Eric Betzig, one of the three laureates in yesterday’s award, was quite interesting:

This is a chemistry prize, do you consider yourself a chemist, a physicist, what?
[EB] Ha! I already said to my son, you know, chemistry, I know no chemistry. [Laughs] Chemistry was always my weakest subject in high school and college. I mean, you know, it’s ironic in a way because, you know, trained as a physicist, when I was a young man I would look down on chemists. And then as I started to get into super-resolution and, which is really all about the probes, I came to realise that it was my karma because instead I was on my knees begging the chemists to come up with better probes for me all the time. So, it’s just poetic justice but I’m happy to get it wherever it is. But I would be embarrassed to call myself a chemist.

Some people are going to be upset by that, but you know, if you do good enough work to be recognized with a Nobel, it doesn’t really matter much what it says on the top of the page. “OK, that’s fine for the recipients”, comes one answer, “but what about the committee? Shouldn’t the chemistry prize recognize people who call themselves chemists?” One way to think about that is that it’s not the Nobel Chemist prize, earmarked for whatever chemists have done the best work that can be recognized. (The baseball Hall of Fame, similarly, has no requirement that one-ninth of its members be shortstops). It’s for chemistry, the subject, and chemistry can be pretty broadly defined. “But not that broadly!” is the usual cry.
That always worries me. It seems dangerous, in a way – “Oh no, we’re not such a broad science as that. We’re much smaller – none of those big discoveries have anything to do with us. Won’t the Nobel committee come over to our little slice of science and recognize someone who’s right in the middle of it, for once?” The usual reply to that is that there are, too, worthy discoveries that are pure chemistry, and they’re getting crowded out by all this biology and physics. But the pattern of awards suggests that a crowd of intelligent, knowledgable, careful observers can disagree with that. I think that the science Nobels should be taken as a whole, and that there’s almost always going to be some blending and crossover. It’s true that this year’s physics and chemistry awards could have been reversed, and no one would have complained (or at least, not any more than people are complaining now). But that’s a feature, not a bug.

38 comments on “Eric Betzig Is Not a Chemist, And I Don’t Much Care”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hear hear!
    …but still, this is physics, hah! 🙂

  2. Ricardo Ros says:

    For me there was only one type of scientist … a scientist. Whether if the knowledge of the person goes into one direction or the other, that is irrelevant, a scientist is a scientist.

  3. newnickname says:

    I suppose his final comment (above), “But I would be embarrassed to call myself a chemist.” has at least two meanings.
    1. The disparaging version, which I don’t think was intended: “I’m embarrassed and ashamed to be lumped in with those nattering nabobs of negativity. Did you read those Comments at Pipeline?” (Older readers will recognize the source of the n-n-n alliteration.)
    2. The self-deprecating version: “I’m embarrassed that I don’t know more chemistry and I’m indebted to those that developed new probes and helped me out and are making this technique more useful.”
    I’ll just put Fujishima-Honda back on the shelf until next year.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Maybe this is just a sign that nobody does anything really new and interesting in pure chemistry anymore. So they just award the chemistry prize to the excess innovation in other fields.
    Real chemistry is dead, and dead boring.

  5. Anonymous says:

    If I was Betzig I would be highly insulted and reject the prize.

  6. Hap says:

    Lots of people knew that this should get a Nobel Prize at some point, and that it would probably be chemistry, so this prize doesn’t seem particularly egregious or disappointing.
    The general situation is annoying, though, because of two things. Most scientists don’t really get going until later in life (the shifts in NIH grants to later and later ages is a measure of this) and so there’s a pretty limited window for people to get one (since they have to be alive to get a Nobel). If “Chemistry” is really “Chemistry, Biology, and Materials Science”, then there’s a lot larger pool of potential recipients, and so the chances are high that people who perhaps deserve a Nobel will be left out, and that fewer chemists will actually have a chance to get a Nobel.
    The second problem is that the concept of “it doesn’t matter what science a discovery fits in to, as long as it’s good” isn’t consistent with presumably what the prizes are. If the distinctions of the fields of prizes have meaning, then it matters because giving Nobels to people in other fields doesn’t fit with the stated/legal purposes of the awards. If awards are going to be given out to the best science, regardless of field, then perhaps either the award definitions should be changed to reflect that reality or a biology award should be added (distinct from medicine) to reflect those fundamental discoveries. If there are legal and substantive causes for the Nobel system to exist as it does, then ignoring those rules doesn’t make them not exist – they either ought to be obeyed, or changed, not ignored.

  7. Wavefunction says:

    Rutherford was not the only one who got the chemistry prize for nuclear-physics related studies; others include the Joliot-Curies, Marie Curie and Otto Hahn. There is thus a long and fairly common tradition of awarding physicists the chemistry prize, so I don’t understand why we are complaining. As I mentioned in a previous comment, what about Ernst for methodological developments in NMR, Herschbach for crossed molecular beams and Kohn for DFT? All developments firmly grounded in physics but relevant to chemistry.
    And it’s not like awards for “pure” chemistry have been completely missing: Heck et al. were just awarded the prize and Grubbs and Schrock were recognized a few years before that. But as you indicate that misses the point; science grows most vigorously at its edges where it’s hardest to recognize but where it’s also the most exciting and chemistry is no different. Ignore these edges and you ignore the most exciting aspects of the field.
    Ultimately Max Planck’s quote will prevail: at some point the old generation (us) will perish and a new one will arise, one which is completely at home with these interdisciplinary developments.

  8. KevinH says:

    I’ve long found the science that excites me most tends to live on the ‘boundaries’ between established scientific domains. (That isn’t to say that the smack-dab hearts of chemistry or physics don’t have good stuff happening in them too; I’m just looking at a tendency as seen through the lenses of my own particular and peculiar perception.) I can see at least a couple of related reasons.
    The interfaces and interstices between established fields are where the virgin, untrodden ground sits–if it weren’t new territory, someone would already have put a label on it. Every active field is intermingling with its neighbours; that’s why we have “solid state physics” and “chemical physics” and “biochemistry” and “biophysics” and so forth. When you put previously-disparate bits together, you have the opportunity to study some rich new reactions. (Figuratively and sometimes literally.) It creates diversity in scientific disciplines the same way that sexual reproduction produces diversity in humans.
    As a corollary, when you’ve found a bit of new territory, there’s more low-hanging fruit. The simple but elegant, brilliant experiments haven’t all been done before. You don’t need a supercollider to advance the state of the art.
    Further, the interface between fields can have fractal complexity. There’s a lot of space for scientists to carve out niches. (A lot of those niches may not be very important or interesting, but if you have enough of them then at least a few will likely turn out to be worthwhile.)
    So the Nobel committee is stuck with just three ‘scientific’ designations (chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine), and they have to somehow figure out how to carve up more than a century of chaotic scientific cross-pollination. It’s a difficult and often arbitrary-bordering-on-meaningless distinction. Scientists today are mongrels and mutts, not purebreds. The last paper I wrote was 30% physics, 40% chemistry (including biochemistry), 20% medicine, and 10% other bits and bobs (some computer science, but probably no Literature, Peace, or Economics).

  9. Anon2 says:

    I think an underlying issue is the worry that people end up with a prize based on the applications of their discovery as opposed to the foundations of the discovery. If it is the applications that come to fruition outside of the original discoverer’s hands, it comes across as chance or luck.
    However, another way to see this is that the physicists recognized the chemist’s work enough to gift their most prized prize (hmmm, did I write that correctly?) and the same of the chemistry committee to the physicists.
    Imagine a prize given out for the greatest automobile inventions, and instead of giving it to McLaren or Ferrari, they gave it to the guy that discovered turbocharging or the guy that discovered carbon fiber (perhaps a bad example).
    I don’t see a problem with it.

  10. rtw says:

    I think Eric, might feel most comfortable calling himself an Engineer. His family for many years owned and operated a Machine Shop in Michigan. I think although he may be more of a physicist, it was his exposure to engineering that likely helped him bring everything together. He learned to be a problem solver in the machine shop I bet.

  11. kp says:

    At #3: Thanks for pointing out that I’m old.
    (Nixon’s the one!!)

  12. Anonymous says:

    Given the interest in interdisciplinary subjects why not just award all 6 Nobel Prizes for “Biomedichemiphysilitereconomipeaceandstuff”?

  13. sam says:

    Um, this award did go to research in chemistry. Physical chemistry. Light interacting with matter. The stuff these guys did is all based on stuff you learn in p-chem 101: quantum mechanics, fluorescence, photochemistry, stimulated emission, aromatic compounds, quantum energy states, biophysics and biochemistry, statistics, etc.
    Go open an intro p-chem book and you’ll find all the underpinnings of this award. Open a physics book and you’ll know how fast a baseball falls. 😉
    Saying that this is physics and not chemistry is like saying theoretical chemistry is math and not chemistry.

  14. NJBiologist says:

    @13–Close: Spiro Agnew, delivering a speech written by William Safire. (No, I’m not old: I grew up reading Safire’s On Language column, which periodically covered political speech, new and old.)

  15. Dave Fernig says:

    Indeed, who cares? The other way of considering the question is that depending on your viewpoint, it is all “chemistry”, all “physics” or even all “biology”. This is well wide of the mark. You do all three in varying amounts (after all, even at CERN, it is a biological entity designing and performing experiments….), throw in a good dose of mathematics and engineering and the result is research. We have a label on our departments, initial training that also carries a label, but that is what they are – labels. No meal worthy of the name was made with a single ingredient!

  16. The Iron Chemist says:

    @16: I was sure that was something that Dr. Smith would have said on that “Lost in Space” show. Well, I feel younger now!

  17. yoyomama says:

    I am total agreement with Hap. The next generation will have the same problem with this as the current one. With several fields and all of the interdisciplinary boundary research fueling the chemistry Nobel Prize many truly deserving scientists will never win it. There is money and scientific room for a Biology Nobel Prize. Chemistry, Physics and Medicine have changed dramatically since Alfred re-drafted his will. It saddens me that every year we go through the same hand wringing over breakthroughs that have to be jammed into adjacent scientific space because Nobel didn’t sufficiently appreciate biology. Watching Heck wait for decades through failing health for one of the most well deserved Prizes in recent history convinced me that given the breadth and importance of Biology that another prize category is truly warranted. But perhaps there is some clause that prohibits an addition discipline being added. I feel for all the chemists who have done groundbreaking and important work, but will never get to dance with the Queen of Sweden because so much good biology, biophysics etc deserves to be honored too.

  18. a. nonymaus says:

    Re: 19,
    There is, as far as I know, no way to add a new prize to the set established by the Nobel bequest. However, there is the example of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics (some would call it a pseudo-Nobel for a pseudoscience). Some bunch of Scandinavians could endow a similar Nobel Memorial prize in biology. Whether it would get the same recognition as the more established prizes can only be determined by experiment.

  19. canocola says:

    Surely the economics prize is self-replicating, in that it gets given to whoever explains why last year’s winner got it so helplessly wrong?
    As for this award, I’m happy with it – one tragedy of the human condition is often the urge to put discrete labels on continuous phenomena, and then to assume that these arbitrary lines are meaningful.

  20. Nekekami says:

    Something that needs to be pointed out in regards to the Nobel prizes
    In his will, Nobel laid out the rules and guidelines for the categories, and he was fully aware of the impact.
    One of the key things is: He wanted scientists and engineers to work towards real-world goals and practical advancement for mankind. Hence why you have, relatively speaking, so few “pure” theoretical research awards as sciences award more and more. Another effect is that you will have a lot of overlap between the fields, because that’s how you have to work with science and engineering when doing real-world applicable development.
    An example of that is blue LEDs. Sure, infrared, red, yellow, green etc LEDs affected fibre optics etc, are heavily used as status lights etc. But blue LEDs pushed a MASSIVE bunch of materials research, AND enabled the ability to make white LEDs, which has initiated the move to far more energy efficient lighting, which affects the raw fundamentals of society. It makes it easier to get lighting in regions with a poor power grid for example.

  21. Molmechanic says:

    The chemistry Nobel went to physicists? Did anyone notice that the Physics Nobel went to some impressive work in chemistry? Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura developed methods of crystallizing gallium nitride–a notoriously difficult material to work with. Nakamura discovered that indium was an effective dopant in the GaN that allowed the efficient generation of blue light. Lots of nice chemistry here!

  22. Anonymous says:

    Not sure if ‘chemistry’ would be selected as an area for such prizes if it was begun in 2014, not early 1900s.
    You dont see too many new prizes these days awarded in ‘chemistry’. The Nobel in chemistry is a legacy issue.
    They would probably call it a prize in ‘molecular science’ in 2014.
    Sad however how shortsighted many chemists are who visit this board. Maybe its not a surprise then that aspects of this field are running out of impactful things to do…

  23. eyesoars says:

    @23… Indium isn’t a dopant; it’s in periodic table directly under gallium. It changes the bandgap/color (more indium -> redder; less indium -> bluer), and indium-rich nano-regions apparently trap charge carriers and generate photons efficiently.
    Typical dopants for GaN include oxygen, silicon, and magnesium. More exotic dopants include manganese, used for spintronic devices.

  24. sepisp says:

    Turf wars aside, what’s more alarming is that Betzig, like many people, are bad at chemistry and proud of it. Introducing myself as a chemist often gets the reply that “yeah, I did that last time in 8th grade and I hated it (you must be crazy for doing it as a job)”. I hope Betzig getting his fingertips burned (want a dye? hahaa!) would enlighten the public. Hope, not expect.
    And unfortunately there seems to be a consensus that there are no boundaries between chemistry and physics, or sciences in general. This is simply not true. Chemistry does have a core set of material to learn, and someone who doesn’t know it can’t be a chemist. Yes, they are grounded in physics, and yes, there are physicists and engineers that must learn them also. That doesn’t dilute their value. There are also considerable practical differences in the methods and goals of experimental work. Being interdisciplinary is fine *as long as you actually know one discipline*. Betzig may have done his work at the edges of the disciplines, but what made it possible was his knowledge in the core of his discipline, optics.
    #21: Yes, continuous, but continuous functions can also have local minima, maxima and inflection points. You can’t post a flag on Annapurna and claim to have climbed Mount Everest, even if there is a continuous path between the peaks.

  25. Anonymous says:

    @26: Exactly, I love the peak/trough analogy!

  26. Anonymous says:

    ^Oops, I meant “@27”, not “@26”

  27. Anonymous says:

    Great choice for Peace Prize, for a change!

  28. Helical Investor says:

    The problem here isn’t the chemistry prize or the physics prize or eeconomics — it is finding those worthy of the peace price. So …. the Nobel committee is just setting things up so they can reward the peace prize to themselves after settling things down about all the other prizes they cross-awarded.
    Or, we could just give the peace prize to Derek : )

  29. Helical Investor says:

    @27
    Turf wars aside, what’s more alarming is that Betzig, like many people, are bad at chemistry and proud of it
    I would read his comments as more ‘I have too much respect for chemists to call myself one”

  30. Eric Betzig says:

    Hi Everyone,
    A friend pointed this site/thread out to me. I apologize if I was unclear in the interview. #3 and #32 have it right — I have too much respect for you guys, and don’t deserve to be considered a chemist. My field is entirely dependent upon your good works, and I suspect I’ll be personally more dependent upon your work as I age.
    Cheers, Eric Betzig

  31. Geologie says:

    Congratulation!
    We all (up to 20.000 reader/day) understood as you explained it, except one reader.

  32. daen says:

    Congratulations to Eric! One of the reasons I love science is that the categorical divisions which we put up as human beings really don’t have any meaning in reality — they really only exist to more easily demarcate pedagogy and research funding (and Nobel Prize allocations). In reality, of course, any non-trivial advance in the sciences will draw heavily on all the other areas (examples I like are any given CERN experiment, MRI machines, DNA sequencers – and well, now I can add STED microscopy to the list).

  33. Alex S. says:

    Indeed. Nature does not exist in little boxes (though our scientific tools are usually bundled that way). And the most important advances in this century will be even more interdisciplinary than in the last. Way to go, Eric — for thinking across the artificial dividers!

  34. Nony says:

    It’s instrument design and has been done by both chemists and physicists. Probably more common with physicists but plenty of p-chemists have the chops to build better devices. If some laser jock p-chemist had invented this no one would think twice.

  35. Paul West says:

    Scientists and engineers are always subservient to financial powers that control funding. At AT&T Eric is one of a long list of scientists that watched as their discoveries were channeled by “managers” with no idea of what they were doing. Another brilliant scientist, Russel Young, invented much of what is today the probe microscope, only to be pushed to the side by his managers. If you are planning to work as a scientist, pay close attention to who is paying your salary.

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