No Rest for a Nobelist–Rudolph A. Marcus

Rudolph A. Marcus (1923–)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1992 “for his contributions to the theory of electron transfer reactions in chemical systems”

Marcus, the John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professor of Chemistry, discussed his post-Nobel experience in a recent interview.

“Life certainly became busier. I tried and did maintain the research program at the same rate as before in terms of number of people that were with me and in terms of doing things on my own. All along, I continued to do some thinking on my own; I just enjoy playing with ideas involving theory and trying to understand some experiments.

“In addition to having what I had before, then there were all these invitations that really arose primarily because of the Nobel Prize.

“But it meant for a far busier life, and doing new activities that took a lot of time made doing research on one’s own a little more difficult.

“There are various unanswered problems in fields that I’ve been involved with, including some that my group and I are working on currently, so I am excited to find the answers to those problems. For example, the field of ‘single molecule’ experiments has provided new challenges. In one study of a biological molecular motor, we have applied theories about how chemical and mechanical aspects within the system might work to data from single molecule experiments to build a more detailed model of the motors. To learn more, we are applying the same method to another type of single molecule experimental results on the same system.”

“The common theme is seeing something which is a puzzle and trying to find an answer to it. . . . It goes back to doing puzzles as a child, actually.”

Header image credit: Caltech

No Rest for a Nobelist–David Baltimore

David Baltimore (1938–)
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975 (with Renato Dulbecco and Howard Martin Temin) “for their discoveries concerning the interaction between tumour viruses and the genetic material of the cell”

Baltimore, the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology, and President Emeritus of Caltech, was interviewed recently about his life and work after the prize.

“When you win the Nobel Prize, you become much more visible as a member of the scientific community. Visible to the press, visible to your colleagues, visible to students. Today, and ever since, when I meet a student, I know that they’re looking at me and saying, ‘That’s a Nobel Prize winner.’ And it actually makes normal communication more difficult because they think I come from some other planet.

“I had to accept the medal of speaking for the scientific community and have spent now basically almost all of my career as a sort of visible member of the scientific community, conscious of a responsibility and an opportunity.

“I’ve been involved in some of the biggest changes in the nature of biology, the way we do it, and the controversies that have been associated with that. Probably the biggest one was the recombinant DNA controversy in 1975, partly as a result of my work. We suddenly realized that there was a new capability, the capability to cut and paste DNA and therefore to move genes from one organism to another, to modify genes, to capture genes, to use them in biotechnology, and that was a monumental new way of looking at biological experimentation and the capabilities of our profession. But it also raised the issue of whether we were going to create some kind of monster, some kind of problem, disease-causing organisms. And so the world got pretty worried about that.

“I was part of the organization that put together the Asilomar Conference, a conference that looked at this question of danger coming from the new capabilities and put in place a procedure whereby we could slowly extend the capabilities to new organisms and new ways of doing science with safe checks along the way so that this was done carefully over a decade. And I think that gave the general public a sense that we were being responsible as scientists.

“Inevitably the biggest impact that people will have seen from my career is the discovery of the reverse transcriptase because that won the Nobel Prize and stood out. I think that in all of the areas where I’ve worked, there are personal satisfactions which are as great as that— the success of my students.”

Header image credit: Caltech

No Rest for a Nobelist–Robert H. Grubbs

Robert H. Grubbs (1942–)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005 (with Yves Chauvin and Richard R. Schrock) “for the development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis”

Grubbs, the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry, talked about life after the Nobel in a recent interview.

“I really liked doing what I was doing before [the prize], so I’ve mostly continued doing that. I think my wife had the best statement on it. She said, ‘We now drink better wine and we dance more.’

“I’m getting old, so I’m going to have fun now. Part of what we’re doing is making better catalysts. . . . We’re also trying to define and find new transformations that use catalysts to convert a molecule, one into another one.

“There’s a new Hepatitis C treatment, and one of the molecules that is involved in that new treatment, which finally cures Hepatitis C, is a molecule made using our chemistry.

“And then another whole area which I’ve been working on for a long time, which is sort of my hobby now, is developing materials for biomedical applications.

“We probably have 10 different projects going now that are developing materials for really interesting [medical] applications. . . . It’s not biology; it’s what I call plumbing, and we’re having a good time developing these materials.

“The only thing going forward is that I hope we can have the opportunity to keep going for quite a while and these wonderful students keep showing up, and postdocs. I’d like to have a chance to do a few more things.”

Header image credit: Caltech

No Rest for a Nobelist–Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman (1918–1988)
Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 (with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger) “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles”

In January 2016, Caltech held an event celebrating the legacy of Richard Feynman, which included a long and revered teaching career both at the Institute and through a series of lectures aimed at laypeople interested in physics.

In a blog tribute titled “The Best Teacher I Never Had” and written for the event, Bill Gates remembers how he stumbled upon Feynman’s lectures.

“A friend and I were planning a trip together and wanted to mix a little learning in with our relaxation. We looked at a local university’s film collection, saw that they had one of his lectures on physics, and checked it out. We loved it so much that we ended up watching it twice. Feynman had this amazing knack for making physics clear and fun at the same time. I immediately went looking for more of his talks, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Years later I bought the rights to those lectures and worked with Microsoft to get them posted online for free.

“In that sense, Feynman has a lot in common with all the amazing teachers I’ve met in schools across the country. You walk into their classroom and immediately feel the energy—the way they engage their students—and their passion for whatever subject they’re teaching.”

Header image of Richard Feynman courtesy of the Caltech Archives


A Nobel Honor

Caltech added another win to its Nobel scorecard in 2014, bringing to 33 the tally of Caltech alumni and faculty laureates, who have won a total of 34 Nobel Prizes.

Eric Betzig (BS ’83), a group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and William E. Moerner of Stanford University. He is the second Caltech alum in two years to be awarded the prize; Martin Karplus (PhD ’54) received the Chemistry Prize in 2013.

The three were honored “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy,” a method that allows for the creation of “super-images” with a resolution on the order of nanometers, or billionths of a meter. In essence, the work turns microscopy into “nanoscopy.” The technique developed by the trio overcomes the so-called Abbe diffraction limit, which describes a physical restriction on the sizes of the structures that can be resolved using optical microscopy. Essentially, the limit shows that nothing smaller than one-half the wavelength of light, or about 0.2 microns, can be discerned by optical scopes. The result of
the Abbe limit is that only the larger structures within cells—organelles like mitochondria, for example—can be resolved and studied with regular microscopes; individual proteins or even viruses cannot. The restriction is akin to being able to observe the buildings that make up a city but not the city’s inhabitants and their activities.

Betzig, who was a physics major from Ruddock House during his time at Caltech, built on earlier work by Hell and Moerner to find that it was possible to work around the Abbe limit to create very-high-resolution images of a sample, such as a developing embryo, by using fluorescent proteins that glow when illuminated with a weak pulse of light. Each time the sample is illuminated, a different, sparsely distributed subpopulation
 of fluorescent proteins will light up and, because the glowing molecules are spaced farther apart than the Abbe diffraction limit, a standard microscope would be able to capture them.

Still, each of the images produced in this way has relatively low resolution—that is, the images are blurry. Betzig realized, however, that by super-imposing many such images, he would be able to obtain a sharp super-image, in which nanoscale structures are clearly visible. The new technique was first described in a 2006 paper published in the journal Science.

—Kathy Svitil

Photo by Alexander Mahmoud @ Nobel Media AB