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.