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Ben Feringa delivers Nobel lecture in De Oosterpoort

04 April 2017

On the evening of Monday 3 April, an event entitled ‘Meet Ben Feringa’ was held in the Main Hall of De Oosterpoort. During this evening, which was organized by Studium Generale, Ben Feringa delivered the Dutch version of his Nobel lecture and was interviewed by Coen Verbraak. There were musical and literary intermezzos and the audience was invited to ask questions.

Biking to Zernike

The Groningen band Swinder opened the evening. As they played ‘Noar Stad’, the video clip created for the number and featuring images of Feringa biking to work on the Zernike complex was screened in the background. After a brief introduction by Marjolein Nieboer, chair of the Studium Generale committee and director of the University Library, Feringa himself was given the floor. ‘I’m touched to see you all here. It’s a bit overwhelming and I feel very honoured’, said Feringa as he addressed a packed Main Hall.

Nobel lecture in Dutch

During the first half of the evening, Feringa delivered the Dutch version of his original Nobel lecture. He gave a clear and enthusiastic account of his research career until now, explaining how he and his team made certain discoveries, which could then be used to develop innovations such as ‘smart’ medicines . Feringa did not confine his lecture to discussing the things that had been achieved, but also mentioned the questions and difficulties that lie ahead. In his words: ‘I think about the impossible. This is something scientists enjoy. The best way to predict the future is to discover it.’ Something Feringa was keen to stress throughout the evening was the fact that he could never have done this on his own. He thanked his other family, the University of Groningen, ‘for the opportunity to play in the field of the unknown’, along with his research team and Professor Hans Wijnberg. He saved his final words of the lecture for the future generation: ‘For the young people in the audience today: imagine the unimaginable!’ He was given a standing ovation.

The importance of modesty

After a short set by Swinder, Feringa returned to the stage, this time to be presented with the book Nobel op de kaart. A chapter about Feringa has been added to the second edition of the book, which gives a detailed overview of all 21 Dutch Nobel Prizewinners. Feringa then took a seat on the sofa opposite journalist Coen Verbraak, well-known for his in-depth interviews in various shows, including Kijken in de Ziel. The interview focused on ‘the man behind the research. ‘Was it the leading scientist standing there or the little boy from Barger-Compascuum?’, asked Verbraak, talking about the moment Feringa was handed his Nobel Prize in Stockholm. ‘The little boy’, replied Feringa. ‘If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s modesty.’ Feringa went on to explain that even as a boy, he enjoyed making discoveries and that the Feringa family thrived on books and discussion: ‘My father used to say: I can’t give you money, but I can give you common sense.’ While he was being interviewed, childhood photos of Feringa and his family were shown in the background. Feringa said that he was glad he’d stayed in Groningen and declined offers to continue his research abroad: ‘I’m living proof that you can work in Groningen, Utrecht or Leiden and win a Nobel Prize.’
Despite talking enthusiastically about academic research and his powerful drive, Feringa admitted that pursuing a career in science can be an uncertain life: ‘If you need security, don’t become a scientist. You have to be creative and courageous enough to take a dive into the unknown. Sometimes you just have to wait for a lucky break and serendipity´.

An ode as thanks

The audience was invited to ask questions after the interview. People were also asked to send questions via Twitter using the #studiumferinga hashtag. ‘This is making me nervous’, joked Feringa when a question from the floor suddenly reminded him of several unanswered the questions in his research. As thanks for coming, rather than being presented with flowers Feringa received an ode written by University of Groningen poet-in-residence Esmé van den Boom . Marjolein Nieboer rounded off the evening by thanking Feringa and the Studium Generale staff for all their hard work.

Last modified:14 April 2020 12.45 p.m.
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