In situ with David McMillan

In situ with David McMillan

David McMillan is the James S McDonnell Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University, USA. In 2021, he and Benjamin List shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their independent work developing asymmetric organocatalysis. In 2022 he was knighted for his services in chemistry and science.

When I was 10 years old, I thought I was going to be a steel worker. My brother was the first person in our family to decide to go to university. It was very controversial. My mom and dad thought he was lazy and didn’t want to go with my dad to the local steel mill. Then when he graduated, he found a job that paid more than my dad, who was doing it after 30 years as a steelworker. At that time my parents decided that I should go to college.

The last time I did an experiment in the lab was in the summer of 2002. I decided that I was going to show these young punk students how to do this. Before I knew it, there were seven or eight people running behind me because I didn’t know where anything was (imagine an operating room). I was wasting absolutely everyone’s time. I set up React and then got really busy and never came back to deal with it. He sat there for several days. It was really embarrassing!

We have issues that we have been working on in our group for 15 years that we haven’t solved yet. But if they work, it would be amazing. Even if you don’t know how to do something, if you’re thinking “wow, if that could happen, that would be huge”, it’s a great litmus test to say. Yes, that’s a good problem to work on”.

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The average scientist deserves a lot more credit than he actually gets. I think science is the greatest field, because academic scientists work very hard and are usually not paid particularly well. They do it because they love science and they care about leaving the world a better place than they found it. I think it’s really a shame that society opposes scientists in some political way.

For the record, my medal was dropped only twice. no bumps so far

William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk star trekinterviewed me. He then contacted me later to ask if he could chat with me again. All he asked me during that second conversation was “David, what is a Photon?” And I thought that was crazy – Captain Kirk wants to know what a Photon is!

The most attractive person I’ve talked to is football coach Alex Ferguson. He called me to ask if I wanted to have dinner with him. We stayed about four hours, drank a lot. He has a very convincing intellect. You can understand why he was such an amazing manager. He understands psychology very well, but he also understands history very well, while having a very classic Scottish working-class sensibility.

We Scottish football fans were born to suffer. By definition, Scottish teams rarely win. it hurts so much. But when they do well it’s amazing. Sometimes you have to go through all the pain to have fun.

I support a football team called Rangers, Which reached the final of the Europa League this year. They faced a German team called Eintracht Frankfurt, a team backing Ben List. The chances of these two teams going face to face in the Europa League final were practically non-existent. I would say that the prospect of me and Ben List winning the Nobel Prize and our respective teams competing in a European final in the same year was, well, insane. Of course, Eintracht Frankfurt won.

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I really like terrible television. Like Downton Abbey. I love Downton Abbey. I mean, who would ever accept that? Sometimes it’s good to sit at the end of the night and watch something that is simply malleable and soothing, just let it take over you and completely relax you.

Wherever we go, we take Nobel medals with us. On flights we throw it in the luggage. One of the funniest things in life is watching people’s reactions. When you give medals to people, they are almost afraid to catch it, which I find quite funny. it’s like a Lord of the Rings thing. More seriously, I love coin revelry and I really appreciate that people are part of something that is quite rare. For the record, my medal was dropped only twice. No bumps so far.

I believe that if I have enough people to win a medal, That one day someone is going to win a Nobel Prize who holds it. It would be really cool if someone said, “Yeah, I wore Macmillan’s medal as he was traveling around the world and handing it out to people.”

People always want to take pictures with you. But you soon realize that medals and prizes are the real fame. Who in 40 years wants to show my grandchildren a picture of me? Medals, however, are another story.


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