“IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE CHEM­ISTRY”

KURT WÜTHRICH on No­bel Lau­re­ate re­search and chance.

Bulletin - - Contents - By Si­mon Brun­ner Photo: Rene Ruis / Key­stone

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.

How so?

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.

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