“IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE CHEMISTRY”
KURT WÜTHRICH on Nobel Laureate research and chance.
Kurt Wüthrich, which Swiss Nobel Laureate has contributed the most to the global knowledge society?
You're counting Einstein as Swiss, right? Then I'd say that the matter is settled. I feel honored every time I'm portrayed next to him. His contribution to our view of the world was absolutely phenomenal. And there's also all the publicity that surrounds him, which was consciously orchestrated even during his lifetime. The image we have of Einstein today has been shaped to some extent by the media.
Between 1900 and 2002, when you were recognized, a Nobel Prize was awarded to someone from Switzerland once every four years, on average. Another 15 years would go by before Jacques Dubochet won in 2017. Is top-level research in Switzerland in a slump?
Very high-level scientists often lacked the courage to take risks and try something really new. The Asian boom, too, probably has something to do with Switzerland's dry spell. The Japanese have won 17 Nobel Prizes since 2001. China is on the rise as well, and it's a country to watch in the coming decades. In addition, Switzerland has had some bad luck. Astrophysicist Michel Mayor, who discovered the first extrasolar planet, might have received a Nobel Prize long ago except for the fact that his most important competitor, with whom he would probably have shared the prize, was removed from his position as a result of harassment allegations. Because of political correctness, it would have been practically impossible to nominate that colleague for anything.
How did your career begin?
I was interested in nature from an early age. I grew up on a farm and all of my relatives were farmers. And I had a little chemistry laboratory at the farm. Eventually I planted a forest and wanted to become a forest ranger – even today I take care of a forest. For a while I also managed a trout stream.
But then you turned to sports.
That's right. I was a physical education teacher, certified in Switzerland. While attending high school in Bienne, I was already training as many as 20 hours a week. I spent more time at the National Sports Center in Macolin than anywhere else. I played football and handball and was involved in track and field. I was a Swiss champion in korbball, a game similar to basketball. I was a ski instructor for a long time. And I'm certified to teach swimming. My dream was to win a major medal. Unfortunately, however, I wasn't good enough. So then I said to myself, “Okay, I'll teach high school physical education.” That was the plan.
Why didn’t it work out?
My wife and I were given a grant to study the idea of introducing American sports like basketball and volleyball to Switzerland's schools. In 1965 we went to the University of California, Berkeley. My wife was studying modern dance there. Since there's a limit to the number of hours per day you can be involved in sports, I dabbled in quantum mechanics. It was new to me and sounded exciting. I began to do actual research and was then hired by Bell Telephone Laboratories. That was where the breakthrough came.
You refined nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR). As the newspaper NZZ put it, you turned binoculars into a telescope to explore the tiniest building blocks of life. But it was sports that triggered your interest in these topics.
That's exactly right. I was very interested in oxygen intake and wanted to know just how it functions. We started off with high-altitude training. Macolin itself is nearly 1,000 meters above sea level. Later we trained in the Engadine. We tried a natural approach to increase our hemoglobin concentration, as some people do today through doping. I was constantly drawing my blood and testing it.
Sports, physics, chemistry, mathematics – would it be accurate to say that your career has been somewhat random?
There was certainly an element of chance! I've done so many different things, it really didn't have to be chemistry.
If you were 20 years old today, would you still take the same path?
I hardly dare to answer that question, since the situation today is so different. In my day you could drift a bit while you were a university student, trying out a variety of things. I was able to be involved in practically as many sports as I wanted, and still take courses in philosophy and theater. I earned my doctorate in chemis- try in the evenings, while also studying to be a physical education teacher, and it took just 14 months. I was finished with my education by the age of 25. Today such extracurricular activities are much more organized. Some 30 professional athletes are currently studying at the ETH, including an Olympic medalist: Dominique Gisin. She's a fourth-semester student in physics.
Many of today’s young students are interested in creating a start-up – do you worry that there might not be enough young academics?
Not at all! Instead, too many students may be choosing an academic career. Not everyone can be a professor. It can't be financed. Unfortunately, the process of selecting academic talent is more political than the selection process for athletes. In the high jump, everyone knows that if you can't clear 2.15 meters, you needn't show up. There's not really any comparable standard in academia, although people have tried hard to find one.
How has the Nobel Prize changed your life?
I've used it mainly to keep my life from changing.
There is a special exception called the “Lex Wüthrich,” which permits the ETH to keep certain individuals employed even after they have reached the mandatory retirement age. The Nobel Prize has allowed me to continue my regular professional life beyond the age of 65.
Kurt Wüthrich, 79, became famous for his groundbreaking work on protein structure determination using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR). For that work, he was awarded “half of the Nobel Prize” in chemistry; the other half went to John B. Fenn and Koichi Tanaka for developing methods to analyze proteins using mass spectrometry.