Three Nobel Prize winners at the RUG

A little over a year ago Ben Feringa, Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Sir James Fraser Stoddart won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry together. This week marks the first time they’re all together in Groningen. They are being honoured with a four-day international molecular chemistry conference.
By Menno van der Meer / Photos by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Sunday night marked the start of the Molecular Machines Nobel Prize Conference in the small hall at De Oosterpoort. The room is filled with professors from various universities: Tokyo, Bologna, Manchester, and Hong Kong. There are PhD students from France, the United States, China, and Japan.

They are all duly impressed by Feringa, Sauvage, and Stoddart. RUG PhD student Juan Chen can’t believe her eyes. Three Nobel Prize winners from her favourite field, sitting right there on the first row. She will cherish this moment, she says. She might never see anything like this again.

Yet the laureates will not speak at this event. They will speak on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. On the first night, science journalist Martijn van Calmthout will present his book, Real Nano, and organic chemist and professor Bert Meijer will talk about the development of supramolecular chemistry.

The smallest machines

Thirty speakers will be presenting to the conference visitors over the next few days. Their topic: the smallest machines in the world, a thousand times thinner than a human hair. They have no practical applications just yet, but the developments are promising. In the future, programmable nano machines might be used to repair tissue in the body.

According to Adriaan Minnaard, director of the Stratingh Institute for Chemistry, and co-founder of the conference, it is a special time for science. ‘Having the three of them Groningen at the same time is extraordinary, given how busy they are. So many other experts in the field have come to Groningen as well. They all cleared their schedules just to be here.’

The conference has a limit of three hundred visitors. ‘It’s not a mass event’, says Minnaard. ‘We didn’t want to make it too pedestrian. It’s a scientific party, but we’re keeping it substantive. And this way, each guest can actually talk to each speaker.’


This also goes for Leiden PhD candidate Casper de Boer. Together with a few colleagues from his lab, he is attending the drinks after the lecture. ‘The development of molecular machines is not quite our area of expertise’, he says. But we’re extremely interested, especially in the Nobel Price winners’ lectures.’

As he is talking, Feringa passes behind him, travelling from one group of PhD students to the next. Sauvage and Stoddart are also seen talking to a few international colleagues. The laureates are extremely approachable.

Feringa expressly asked for the event to be small-scale. Exchanges between older, celebrated professors and young, ambitious PhD students and post-docs are important. According to Feringa, universities should act as ‘playgrounds’ for scientists, so they can follow their curiosity without restrictions.

This message can also be found in photo exposition, aptly entitled Playground. The Der Aa church hosts a series of photographs resulting from the collaboration between the Nobel Prize winner and photographer Jos Jansen. The conference guests will visit the exposition on Tuesday afternoon.



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