NATURE PODCAST

Podcast Extra: Q&A with Nobel Prize winner John Goodenough

Benjamin Thompson chats to Goodenough about being awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

John B. Goodenough tells us about his Nobel win.

John Goodenough, from the University of Texas at Austin in the US, was jointly awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in the development of the lithium-ion battery. Reporter Benjamin Thompson chatted with him about the significance of his work, and what it's like to be the oldest ever recipient of a Nobel Prize.

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Transcript

John B. Goodenough tells us about his Nobel win.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Hi, listeners – Benjamin here with another quick podcast extra just ahead of the main show. Today, the winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry were announced. One of them is John B. Goodenough from the University of Texas at Austin in the US. John was awarded his prize for his work in the development of something that almost everyone takes for granted, and that is the lithium-ion battery. John happened to be over in the UK today as he’s also about to be awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, so I popped over to the Royal Society here in London for a quick chat with him.

Well, John, today you were announced as one of the co-winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. How are you feeling right now?

Interviewee: John B. GoodenoughWell, I’m very grateful that I have that honour. It’s splendid, but I’m the same person I was before. Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And I understand you missed the call from the Nobel Committee this morning. When did they manage to actually reach you?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

They didn’t reach me, but somebody with a cell phone managed to get the information on the phone this morning while I was brushing my teeth. Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And what was your reaction then when you finished brushing your teeth?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

Well, of course I was very pleased. I suppose I was surprised, but at my age it doesn’t really make much difference. In the Bible, they say there’s such things as wood, hay and stubble. Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, at 97 you are the oldest Nobel winner. Did you ever think this day would arrive?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

No, I assumed I was too old. Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

But somebody told me that you’re still in the lab every day. Is that true? Still researching, still working?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

Yes, I’m in the lab every day. I’m still working. What would I do, just retire and wait to die? No, I don’t think so. Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, you’ve of course won for your work on the development of lithium-ion batteries, and in this room now there are dozens of these things. Did you think that your research would lead to where we are now?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

No, I really didn’t. I couldn’t anticipate it. It’s all come as a surprise.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And how do you feel about it?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

Well, I’m very pleased that it is something that is useful for society and brings people together. But as I say, our inventions are morally neutral. It depends upon how we use them. So, if people use the lithium-ion battery well, I’m delighted.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

You started your career as a physicist and you have made lots of discoveries that are of great importance – the development of RAM and superconductors and so forth. Is the lithium-ion work your favourite work?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

No, I think my favourite work was to investigate what’s called a Mott transition, the transition from where the electrons in a cell are iterant – that means that they belong equally to all the atoms of a periodic array – to where they are localised and they sit on one atom and hop from one to the other. I think the investigation of the physics at that transition has been important and I’m very pleased with it.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Are you disappointed not to have won the prize for that work?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

No, I don’t suppose so. That goes back a long way.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Here you are at 97. You’re a Nobel Prize winner. What questions are left to answer for lithium-ion batteries, would you think?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

How do you make them safer? How do you make them so they last for longer amounts of time? I know that we live in a throwaway society and they don’t like things to last too long, but I like to make things that will last a long time. I don’t believe in a throwaway society. Laughs. I think we need to preserve Mother Earth.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And you yourself have lasted quite a long time, John, in fairness.

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, I’m fortunate that I’ve been given the genes that allow me to go to 97, yes! Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Wonderful, John. Thank you so much.

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

You’re very welcome.