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Nobel laureate's bonds transformed science

Fraser Stoddart, 2016 Nobel laureate in chemistry and creator of the groundbreaking mechanical bond, which he stresses has everything to do with the human bonding that takes place inside and outside the lab, will leave an impact for  generations to come.

Photos by Jim Prisching

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Podcast transcript:

Stoddart: It is groundbreaking, there's no doubt about it. It is a new way of thinking; it's a new way of doing.

In this Northwestern University podcast, we talk to a Northwestern chemist who awoke to a shocking phone call early in the morning last Oct. 5. On the other end – an announcement that he’d earned the highest honor in chemistry, a Nobel Prize.

Stoddart (at news conference): Of course, when it happens to you, you always think, ‘Could it be a hoax?’

Within minutes, he was convinced that, no, the call wasn’t a hoax, and yes, his many decades of work, that has led to a whole new field of chemistry, was about to be celebrated around the world.

Stoddart: My name is Fraser Stoddart.

2016 Nobel laureate in chemistry and…

Stoddart: I'm a board of trustees professor of chemistry here at Northwestern University.

What a life’s journey Stoddart has had, from his childhood operating horse-drawn carts on a post-World War II farm…

Stoddart: We had no electricity until I was 17 years of age.

…to a career that has made his name familiar to chemists around the world.

Stoddart shares the Nobel Prize with Jean-Pierre Sauvage from France and Ben Feringa from the Netherlands. The award celebrates the three laureates’ creation of molecular machines.

Stoddart: These are the tiniest machines that have been built in all of time.

Molecular machines are 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. They’ve opened the door to a whole new field of chemistry, paving a path for the next generation of inventors.

Stoddart (at Nobel banquet): It’s taking chemists into previously uncharted territories.

That new field, called molecular nanotechnology, offers endless possibilities in terms of materials, information processing and medical science.

Stoddart: We're sitting at the entrance to a gold mine.

Molecular machines already have been used as drug delivery vehicles in effective new forms of medical treatment, and scientists are experimenting with the machines to create self-healing materials for things like electronics.

Stoddart: There are already forays into putting coatings on things like your iPhone and so forth. If they get scratched, the scratch will fill itself up.

But that is where Stoddart would like us to pause. He says applications should not be the emphasis of the Nobel Prize discovery. Rather, the Prize celebrates fundamental science that drives the field forward to ever-greater discoveries down the road.

Stoddart: That's what's really important about this Nobel Prize.

That brings us to Stoddart’s research. After many years of trial and error in the lab, he created a brand new bond, the rockstar of chemistry that led to the molecular machine.

Stoddart (at Nobel banquet): It's only once in a blue moon that a new bond, which constitutes a game changer, enters the chemical domain. The mechanical bond is such a bond.

Stoddart delivered those words in front of all the 2016 Nobel laureates at the Nobel Prize banquet in Stockholm.

The creation of the mechanical bond has fundamentally changed the way scientists think.

Stoddart: The last time, effectively, a new bond in chemistry was featured was in 1939.

That was the chemical bond, which eventually led to the creation of plastic.

Northwestern: You consider this sort of a similar parallel – the chemical bond to plastic versus…

Stoddart: The mechanical bond to things that are going to be moving. This is the difference.

Unlike the chemical bond, the mechanical bond has components that move back and forth and rotate with respect to each other. It’s a dynamic that chemists have been dreaming about for a long time. The movement opens up a whole new range of physical possibilities we can’t yet imagine.

Stoddart: The mechanical bond is more or less, as far as molecular machinery is concerned, where flight was in 1927.

That’s the year Charles Lindbergh completed the first-ever solo flight across the Atlantic.

Stoddart: Then think of today, how we can sit in these large contraptions that we call 747s or Dreamliners or whatever, and they ship us across the planet with the greatest of ease.

Stoddart believes molecular machines will ultimately produce the same type of life-changing developments we’ve seen with flight.

Stoddart: There will be no limits.

Northwestern: You can't even predict at this point.

Stoddart: You can't even predict.

Stoddart says it’s the young scientists, still in school today, who ultimately will find new ways of using these bonds.

Stoddart: They are going to be jumping onto the bandwagon of the molecular machine, obviously using the mechanical bond very often to get there, so the young people will drive us forward.

This a perfect segue to talk about another form of bonding in which Stoddart excels – human bonding. He truly believes that his most important work is not his research, but mentoring the path-breaking chemists of tomorrow. 

Stoddart: I’m a professor, and the main output from my activity here at the University is one involving teaching.

Stoddart has more than two dozen postdocs and grad students in his lab today. He frequently invites them to his house for parties and gourmet meals, and he hosts weekly lab meetings, which he describes as “group therapy,” to ensure the lessons of the lab are sinking in. 

Stoddart: We've trained people to think in different ways. We've trained people to take chemistry to a different level.

Through this training, Northwestern will lead the way in developing this new field, which already owes many of its greatest discoveries to Northwestern researchers.

Stoddart: They're, in my opinion, probably almost the best in the world.

Some of the most-cited scientists of our time call Northwestern home – Chad Mirkin, Tobin Marks, Rick Van Duyne and John Rogers, just to name a few.

Stoddart: I think it's just a matter of time until the perception is such that we are number one.

Northwestern: And you will have helped to drive that perception.

Stoddart: Yeah, I think so because what Northwestern, in chemistry, really needed was a Nobel Prize to drive that perception a little bit higher.

Stoddart accepted his Nobel Prize at a ceremony in Stockholm, attended by dozens of his research assistants, friends and family.

Northwestern: From that trip to Stockholm, what's the part that stands out most to you?

Stoddart: I think what was most touching, it was really toward the end, was sitting down just with my two daughters.

That’s the moment he was presented with his Nobel medal. But then…

Stoddart: But then that was topped by being given a book to sign.

Nobel laureates have been signing that very same book for decades.

Stoddart: The first page, when opened, is Winston S. Churchill and his wife.

And now, the name Fraser Stoddart is etched right alongside the geniuses of previous generations.

Stoddart: Going over these pages and seeing all of your scientific heroes before you and then actually having to sit back and say, 'Am I sufficiently accomplished to be in the company of these people?' That takes a bit of getting your mind around.

Stoddart’s work has been compared not only to the greatest scientists of all time, but also literary heroes.

Northwestern: In 2007, the Sunday Times in the United Kingdom said you are ‘to nanotechnology what J.K. Rowling is to children's literature.’ I wonder what you think of that comparison. How does that make you feel?

Stoddart: Oh I'm hugely flattered, of course, because J.K. Rowling is on the tip of everybody's tongue. Who knows Fraser Stoddart? Hardly anybody by comparison.

But Stoddart loves the comparison because in many ways, he considers himself an artist.

Stoddart: Chemistry is such a creative subject. You're making something, so it's the same as a sculptor or a painter or a composer or, coming back to J.K. Rowling, a writer.

In his free time, Stoddart is an art collector.

Northwestern: Going to museums and art fairs?

Stoddart: Yep.

Northwestern: It’s a good way to relax.

Stoddart: You meet interesting people, and it feeds back into my science.

Northwestern: How so?

Stoddart: Because the objects I'm creating are works of art.

Stoddart began flexing his creative, problem-solving muscles as a child, growing up on a farm in Scotland.

Stoddart: It’s called a tenant farm. My parents didn't own it; we paid rent for it.

They didn’t have electricity until 1959, when Stoddart helped the electrician wire the family farmhouse.   

Stoddart: I had to be pretty inventive. It was a challenging existence to be without things that other people had. It was a remarkable introduction into life in general.

Stoddart had to care for the animals on the farm and help with the crops, but without electricity, that wasn’t easy.

Stoddart: I learned to solve problems by coming up with creative solutions because we didn't always have what you needed to do it quickly. You had to think, ‘How am I going to get around this?’

Today Stoddart is grateful for the challenges he overcame in those early days.

Stoddart: I called it the university of life.

They led him to the University of Edinburgh in 1960, where he met one of the most influential figures of his young life – a chemistry professor who said…

Stoddart: He said, 'I put this course together 10, 12 years ago. Nobody has ever finished it.' I just thought, 'Okay, I'll take you on.’ A 10-week course and I finished it in seven weeks.

The professor followed up by asking Stoddart to work in his research group over the summer, and…

Stoddart: I just became addicted. I was bitten by the research bug, so I just was absolutely curious about solving the day's problem or the week's or month's problem in that research context.

Stoddart has dedicated his life to science and research and even his legacy. He has two daughters.

Stoddart: We're very close.

Both hold Ph.D.s in chemistry.

Stoddart: They're a good reflection of the way they were brought up, and I give my wife a lot of credit.

Stoddart’s wife, Norma, was also a Ph.D. chemist.

Stoddart: She was a lot smarter than me. I had to run hard through the early years of our marriage to keep up to her.

Northwestern: She was an inspiration.

Stoddart: She was an inspiration, absolutely.

Sadly, Norma passed away from cancer in 2004, but she’s been a lasting influence on Stoddart and his work. Norma was among the first people Stoddart thanked in his first news conference after winning the prize.

Stoddart (at news conference): There have been people in my life who I want to thank – my late wife, who was my arch critic until she passed away from breast cancer 12 years ago. I therefore also turn to my two daughters.

Stoddart’s first thought upon learning he’d won a Nobel Prize was to thank the people who helped him, not only in his research, but in life. It demonstrates so clearly where his values lie and what he hopes his legacy in science will be.

Stoddart: It will not be necessarily my research. Here I'm going to be quite outspoken. My legacy will be the training and mentoring of a huge number of young people.

Over the years, he has taught more than 400 students, and he is passionate about training them to continue his work of creating new paradigms and advancing modern chemistry and science.

Stoddart: I'm incredibly proud of the fact that almost 100 are now professors of chemistry.

They work in various fields – not all science – spreading their impact all over the world.

Stoddart: I now have this marvelous family. I can almost go to anywhere in the world, and whether I like it or not, I will be met at the airport. This is a great feeling – that you have sons and daughters in your science.

Once again, congratulations to Fraser Stoddart and his co-laureates, creators of the mechanical bond and molecular machines and winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

And thank you to for providing audio from Stoddart’s speeches in Stockholm.

This has been Kayla Stoner reporting from Northwestern University. If you like what you heard, subscribe to “NorthwesternU” on SoundCloud or visit our website,