One year after the Nobel Prize
Feringa stubbornly enjoys the ride
People recognise him on the train. Complete strangers want to take selfies with him. ‘My husband will be so envious.’ Sometimes, they’re not even sure who exactly he is, just that he is a Dutch celebrity. ‘I’m sure I’ll figure it out’, they say. ‘Can I still take a picture with you?’
Ben Feringa, the Groningen Nobel Prize winner, usually doesn’t mind. But even now, it still takes some getting used to. He is being greeted like a rock star by foreign students at the Welcoming Ceremony; school children are standing in line to get his autograph; he is part of the Lindau Conference with all the other Nobel Prize winners; and he gets to have coffee with Willem Alexander. It’s a madhouse, sure, but still ‘heaps of fun’, he emphasises.
One year after he was announced to have won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on molecular motors, his life still shows no signs of slowing down. ‘Ridiculously busy is the new normal’, his secretary Tineke Kalter chuckles.
He appeared on high-profile programmes such as De Wereld Draait Door and College Tour. A bust of him has been placed at the ministry of Education, Culture, and Science; he was the subject of a museum exhibition; has been awarded medals of honour; has a street named after him; and the RUG hurried to rename the new physical sciences complex the Feringa Building rather than the Zernikeborg. Every day, he is invited to dozens of events. From performances at elementary schools, to teacher conferences, talks at the Rotary Club, and invitations to open the Carnival at Barger Compascuüm.
I have to prioritise
Take last Wednesday! First, he was talking to 30,000 school children at the Malieveld, as part of the Generation Discovery Festival. From there, he effortlessly travelled to Sweden, where he addressed 350 teachers at a conference, and gave a public lecture for the Nobel organisation in Stockholm, after which he hurried back to The Hague for a performance at the Night of Science and Society. Anyone who wants to book him for a conference will have to wait until 2019, because 2018 is fully booked already. ‘I never could have imagined this would happen’, says Feringa. ‘Which is probably a good thing.’
And yet. Feringa stubbornly refuses to admit that maybe, sometimes, he is a little tired of it all. Even if he has to carefully divide his time and disappoint people who don’t understand that he doesn’t even have fifteen minutes, let alone an hour, to talk to them. ‘I have to prioritise’, he says. ‘I feel responsible for this group, for my students and PhDs in the lab. The research goes on, and I don’t want to disappoint them. I also have to go back to teaching soon.’
His PhD students have found the perfect way of dealing with his schedule, though. Whenever Feringa has a long plane or train ride ahead, they will leave their writings on his desk the day before, allowing him to read and comment on them while he’s on the road.
He manages to pull it off, too, evidenced by the discoveries his group made this past year, such as the muscle, ‘a little fibre’, that he controlled with his nano motor. A small step in the direction of the applications they’re looking for. His group also succeeded in turning the structure of a polymer, a helix, with the use of the motor.
But, as he continues to emphasise, he is enjoying it all. ‘Don’t forget, this is a childhood dream come true. The Nobel Prize is the highest honour anyone can achieve. I’m so freaking proud of that!’
All these accolades, from the event at the Martini Church where Daniël Lohues personally sang him the typically Drenthe song ‘Op fietse’, to the special bicycle parking spot the RUG arranged for him because he doesn’t drive a car, truly move him. Even after all these months.
This stubborn ability of his to have fun amidst the chaos, may very well have brought him to where he is today. ‘You shouldn’t become a scientist if you can’t handle the hard work, or the setbacks and frustrations that come with it’, he says. ‘We screw up so often, and things go wrong all the time! But you should not become a scientist either, if you don’t have the ability to enjoy things!’
I’m so freaking proud of that!
And so he is sticking to the goal he set for himself at the beginning of this crazy year, on 5 October 2016. ‘I decided to propagate a message to convince the public that academic education, nay, education itself, is crucial to our future If we don’t invest in young talent, we won’t just be standing still, we’ll actually go backwards. That’s what I have been promoting: larger investments in education and research. And the new government listened! Not as much as we’d hoped, but it’s a step in the right direction. And if I helped with that, even a little, I’m happy.’
That’s another one of his recurring messages: make sure that young people have the ability to learn, that they are intellectually challenged and have the opportunity to develop their talents. Feringa’s future as a scientist was never self-evident, and he still carries this inherent notion along. ‘It was never obvious that I would go to university. My father was a farmer. I have nine siblings.’
His parents only had a basic education, supplemented by a few courses here and there. This was completely normal for a couple of farmers in pre-war Drenthe. Sure, they were really smart; Feringa has to have inherited his brains from someone. But further education or university just wasn’t in the cards for them. ‘But whenever I didn’t know the answer to something in elementary school, the teacher would say “Your mother would have known”.’
It was never obvious that I would go to university
His parents decided that Feringa and his brothers and sisters deserved the chances they never had. So when, after high school, Ben announced that he wanted to be a farmer, his father told him to ‘first learn something’.
He wants others to have that opportunity as well. And so he accepts his new role as figurehead and role model. Before, people asked him to talk about his scientific work on molecular motors. Now, people want him to excite and inspire them. They want fewer lectures on molecular motors, and more tips and tricks on how to become a Nobel Prize winner.
One big advantage is the fact that his wife had just retired last year. ‘That was a complete coincidence, albeit a fortunate one’, he says. ‘Her job was really busy, but now she often joins me on trips, and we get to share the experience. And all the children have moved out.’
Whenever things get to be a bit much, he takes to his garden. He owns a small patch of land near his house in Paterswolde, with a pony and a vegetable garden. He’ll mow the grass, do some digging or weeding; get his hands dirty. It’s very relaxing. At least, as long as he doesn’t find snails have eaten his new kale plants during one of his trips. ‘That sight is enough to make you cry.’
He also protects his private time like nothing else. The annual ski trip in February? No one can touch that. And during the summer, he and his wife and their daughters will go to their vacation home at the Sneekermeer. ‘No more travel. Just some biking, reading a book by the water. Maybe we’ll go out sailing. That’s all.’
Last summer, Omrop Fryslân managed to track him down to the lake. He ended up on Douwe Janszoon Visser’s boat, being filmed. ‘Isn’t that amazing?’