Montana State University

Nobel Prize winner at MSU: Pursue something fun, useful and transforming

September 5, 2008 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Jan Hall, Nobel Prize winner in physics, speaks at MSU Friday afternoon. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Students should pursue something "totally fun" that interests them, is useful to others and transforms their tiny corner of the world, a Nobel Prize winner said on his latest visit to Montana State University.

Speaking Thursday and Friday to students and faculty, John L. "Jan" Hall said they shouldn't focus on winning the Nobel Prize or any other award.

"If that's your objective, you may as well stop already because that won't get you any place," Hall said. "Any prize is totally by accident."

Hall, from Boulder, Colo., won a 2005 Nobel Prize in physics for his work in optics, lasers and precise measurements. He spent 44 years conducting research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, working in laser technology, opto-electronic development and precision measurement. He shared the Nobel Prize with Theodor W. Hansch of the Max-Planck-Institute in Germany and Roy J. Glauber of Harvard University.

While at MSU, Hall showed photographs and video of the ceremony where he received the Nobel Prize, joking that the medal "weighs enough to probably think it's real." Winning the prize was an honor that led to new opportunities, such as meeting the royal family of Sweden, Hall said. He admitted, however, that his work had a huge impact on his own family.

"What they remember about science was all the missed dinners, late nights and occasional joys," Hall said.

Praising parents and teachers for their role in his life, Hall said, "To be a parent and bring kids along to understanding is an art form."

It's not enough to take a young person somewhere and say, "Please learn something from this," Hall said. It's important, he said, to provide opportunities to explore and think.

His course began when he went into the basement as a boy, Hall said. There, he discovered a box with all kinds of knobs and learned that it was his father's radio. By examining it, he found radio tubes as big as a fist. He figured out how to make it run, which allowed him to listen to entertainers like Bob Hope instead of reading under the covers with a flashlight. He learned the difference between flashlight batteries and car batteries. He learned what sulfuric acid -- and his mother -- would do after he hid batteries under the clothes in his closet.

"Every person has their own kind of story," Hall said. "Somebody has brought you all here."

Education is about making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, Hall continued. It's fitting puzzle pieces together in unlikely ways. He makes such connections while waiting in airports or hiking.

"Nature is just unbelievably clever," Hall said.

Rufus Cone, Distinguished Professor of Physics in MSU's College of Letters and Science, said this was at least the third time Hall has visited MSU. Besides speaking to faculty and students, he came to learn about MSU's work with optical crystals and student research projects.

"He has influenced people all over the world," Cone said. "He made contributions that are far beyond what he is recognized for."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or