The chemist Benjamin List receives the Nobel Prize 2021 for his discovery of organic catalysts, together with the American David MacMillan. After Klaus Hasselmann, he is the second German prize winner this year.
The famous call from Stockholm reached the researcher working at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Mühlheim an der Ruhr while on vacation in Amsterdam, at breakfast. A little later his phone rang again. This time he answered questions from journalists who were on site in Stockholm, including the German Press Agency. We recorded this first interview that he gave as a Nobel Prize winner.
Dr. List, we can reach you on vacation, right?
Yes, I’m in Amsterdam, we were in a wonderful concert in the Concertgebouw, we have have a wonderful day here, I absolutely did not expect it, it was a big surprise.
How it was that when you got that famous phone call from Stockholm this morning?
I thought someone was playing a prank on me. I was having breakfast with my wife. Otherwise she always says, check your phone to see if someone calls from Sweden. This time we didn’t even make that joke. And then, I look at the phone: Sweden, I look at her, she looks at me, I run out of the café, and sure enough, it was that call. You can’t describe what you feel there, a wonderful moment, a very special moment that I will never forget.
You found these catalysts about 20 years ago. Where do you stand today with your work?
People sometimes wonder why it takes so long for such a discovery to be appreciated. In our case, these early catalysts were about a million times less efficient than the ones we have today. The real revolution in our discoveries is only happening now that we have these extremely reactive organocatalysts that can do things that are impossible with enzymes or even the best metal complexes.
When you made these discoveries 20 years ago, did you immediately know what kind of impact it would have? Or has the development since then surprised you?
At the time I thought I was the only person working on these things. I didn’t know David was working on it in California. We didn’t know anything about each other then. When I did the experiment, I thought maybe this is a stupid idea or someone has tried it a long time ago. But when I saw that it worked, I already had the feeling that it could be something big. But that this would happen, I didn’t expect that in any way.
How come that these organic catalysts only make one form of the two possible mirror-image structures of these molecules?
This is a mystery that chemists and other scientists have so far been unable to unravel . Why in the world is biology one-handed? Why is there this preference in nature? We don’t know until today. Fortunately, we can get these molecules from natural sources. They are made by organisms, they have this “one-handedness”, and this is passed on to the substrate in catalysis, so that you get more of precisely these molecules. This is a great gift that nature gives us here.
What is your favorite catalyst, and you Favorite process?
My favorite catalyst has to be proline, because that’s when I first realized what organic molecules can do. And it’s a beautiful molecule, an edible molecule. People take it as a dietary supplement – even though I’m not sure why. We do it in our own bodies. It is completely harmless, tastes slightly sweet. My favorite processes are the ones we’re working with right now. We now have catalysts that do things that even enzymes cannot do, that really blows me away. We are working on many such reactions right now, they are all my favorites.
What does the price mean for yours Research in the future?
I just asked myself: What am I doing now? We have some plans. I like to approach the extremes: Can we do things that were previously simply impossible? And I think the price gives me even more freedom than I already have as a Max Planck researcher. Because we have the freedom to do what we want – that is, with regard to research. Now I feel even more free, as it were. And I hope I can live up to this recognition and continue to make wonderful discoveries.