Scientists rarely go straight to the goal. An ode to unexpected discoveries. Today: Organic chemist Ben Feringa talks about how a failed molecular switch opened the door to a Nobel Prize.
“Science is an adventure: beyond the limits of knowledge, and deviating from the known path. There you will encounter amazing things, and that is exactly the intention. Twenty years ago, this also led me to be able to design the first molecular machines, such as a small rotary engine, which we could later use to drive A car the size of a millionth of a millimeter This work earned me a great medal in Stockholm, but the research is based on chance, an unexpected discovery.
At the time, I was doing research on molecular switches with master’s and doctoral students. These are the keys as you know from the light switch or the on/off button on your laptop, but on a molecular scale. They can walk one way or the other, a concept behind storing information, in ciphers and the ones that computers run. Using our molecular keys, we were able to store the information in the plastic, like some kind of micro USB stick.
Our molecular switches can move through light energy. At first we used mainly blue light, because it carries a lot of energy. We were fixing the design of the switches, for example, to see if we could also make the switches work with other colors of light.
After some changes in a particular key molecule, it will not turn back anymore. He’s gone, but he’s not back. It was weird, we just sat with our hands in our hair for a while. But guess what: Instead of turning the switch 90 degrees and back again, it rotated another 90 degrees, for a total of 180 degrees. Then the light went out.
If this switch can rotate 180 degrees, it may also be able to do it twice: a full circle. We started working on this, with the goal of making a spinning molecular wheel that could spin with light energy. That worked, and so the molecular motor was born. Finally, we were able to use this molecular technology to make an all-wheel drive nanocar.
So what we wanted to achieve, a new molecular switch, failed, but we found something much more beautiful. The design of these and other molecular machines even won the Nobel Prize in 2016. We never stopped developing and improving molecular switches, so the molecular motor was truly an incremental discovery.
Knowing we’re looking for the unexpected: You should ignore questions you already know the answers to. The best questions are the ones you don’t know exactly how to ask. So these kinds of accidental discoveries are an integral part of the game: unexpected outcomes are the most profitable. Provided you don’t push them aside, of course. The challenge is to recognize them among the real failures.
Ben Ferenga He is Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Groningen. In 2016, his work on molecular machines won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
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