Nobel Winners Draw Their Discoveries

While this year's winners gather in Stockholm, some earlier Nobel laureates decode their breakthroughs with crayon and cardboard.

By Josie Glausiusz|Monday, December 04, 2006
Theodor Hänsch's illustration of his work using lasers to elucidate the color and fine structure of atoms.
Theodor Hänsch

Can the prizewinning work of a lifetime be scrunched into a few scribbles and squiggles? Photographer Volker Steger thinks it can—and he has persuaded a group of Nobel science laureates to pick up his daughter's crayons and draw their discoveries on sheets of white cardboard.

Steger, who conceived the idea last spring while on a solo 300-mile bike trip from his home in Munich across the Swiss Alps to Milan, has photographed Nobelists ranging from Robert Curl Jr. (Chemistry, 1996), a codiscoverer of the 60-carbon spherical molecule known as the buckminsterfullerene, or buckyball, to Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (Physiology or Medicine, 1995), who identified key genes that control embryonic development.

The scientists' artwork draws out unexpected and often deeply personal details. Curl's depiction of the buckyball's creation hints at a dispute over the naming of the molecule. He favored "soccerene" for its soccer-ball shape, but his British cowinner, Sir Harold Kroto, nixed that idea, arguing that in England the game is called football and that the molecule ought to be called "footballene." (In the end, it was named for architect Buckminster Fuller's celebrated geodesic domes.)

A few subjects were reluctant at first to draw their winning discoveries. "The Nobel Prize business—I never worried about it," says Jack Steinberger, who shared the 1988 physics prize for finding a new type of neutrino. "I do physics for the pleasure of doing physics." Instead, he reminisced about his childhood in Germany—which he left as a 13-year-old refugee from Nazism in 1934—and about his experiences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Prince- ton in 1948, where he often saw Einstein but never dared speak to him. Finally, he sketched not his Nobel-nabbing discovery but an earlier calculation that led to his detection of a subatomic particle, the neutral pi-meson.

For some, the exercise prompted an outpouring of creativity. Roald Hoffmann, a cowinner of the 1981 chemistry prize and also a poet, chose to explain his design with a poem composed on the spot. Titled "Orbitals Control the Way Chemical Reactions Go!" it reads, in part:

What the heck are orbitals?
A place for electrons, not quite orbits. . . .
Why do they need a place?
Well, they are attracted to the nuclei.
Hmm . . . that sounds like sex.
Not quite, but I bet there's electrons in sex.
Let's not go there, OK? This is serious.
It's also fun, as electrons are.

Others chose brevity: One winner simply wrote out equations. Steger found it most surprising, though, that his brilliant subjects seemed clueless at first—perhaps because they are so rarely asked to draw. "The funny bit was that they all asked me, 'Now, what am I supposed to do?'" Steger says. "I think it's quite funny for a humble photographer to be asked that by a Nobel laureate."

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