Martin Chalfie’s Chemistry Confession

“I have to tell you a horrible story,” Martin Chalfie confided, a glass of merlot in his left hand. We were at the National Geographic Society, right across the street from ACS, and Chalfie, one of 2008′s Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, had just taken part in a freewheeling discussion about invention and evolution, part of the National Geographic Live series of events.

Earlier in the evening, Chalfie was asked about early moments of scientific inspiration that might portend a Nobel winner in chemistry. “Most good chemists say they tried to make fulminated mercury, or gunpowder, as a child. That wasn’t part of my life,” he’d said.

In the years since the prize was announced I’d often thought about Chalfie’s sort-of-but-not-really-connection to chemistry. So at the post-event reception, I asked him whether he identified with chemistry at all, especially in light of the prize. This prompted the confession.

Columbia University’s chemistry department, Chalfie tells me, houses a prominent display that lists all of the department’s Nobel laureates in chemistry. It’s an illustrious list. (That link only lists laureates through 2004, but I haven’t found a more recent one.)

Long story short, after the prize announcement the department invited Chalfie to join them and be a part of the display. “And I said no,” Chalfie says.

“We categorize things too much,” he continued. Scientists in chemistry departments are doing fabulous work in biology, and vice versa, he contends.

The Nobel he shared with Roger Tsien and Osamu Shimomura was a great chemistry prize “because the prize went to the molecule,” not because of who won it, Chalfie says.

And with that, he turned to the small crowd that had gathered to ask questions of their own.

Bonus Chalfie goodness: Chalfie recently appeared on a Daily Show sketch. Asked by someone in the NatGeo audience whether he thought going on a cable TV show was worthwhile, he said ” it’s comedy. But the point they were trying to make was that science is actually important. I think they did a wonderful job.”

*I tweeted some of Chalfie’s quotes to my followers live from the talk. I should note that I was at NatGeo for an installment of the DC SCience Tweetup, #DCscitweetup in twitter-speak, a meeting where local folks active in tweeting about science gather to chat in person and, of course, tweet the experience. NatGeo hosted us for this particular event.

Author: Carmen Drahl

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  1. To spare any others who may be as clueless as I was from having to look it up:

    Chalfie et al’s Nobel was for discovering and developing green fluorescent protein.