Nobel Thoughts: William Lipscomb

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ANNALS or Improbable Research

Nobel Thoughts: William Lipscomb

Profound insights of the laureates

by Marc Abrahams

William Lipscomb is the Abbott and James Lowell [Lawrence] Professor of Chemistry emeritus at Harvard University. ln 1976 he was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research on the structure and bonding if boron compounds and for his general discoveries about the nature of chemical bonding.

How much coffee do you drink in the course of a day?

Not much. I actually prefer tea. Would you like some tea?

No, thank you.

Oh. I'd be perfectly happy to share mine with you. ..

ls it a strong preference for tea rather than coffee?

Oh, yes, yes, yes indeed. I prefer it with low caffeine because caffeine keeps me awake during the seminars here. Would you like some tea?

No, thank you.

Oh. I thought maybe you'd change your mind.

No, but thank you. Now, how much tea do you drink in the course of a day?

Oh, a few cups. A few cups. Certainly one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and occasionally a few more. Are you sure you wouldn’t like some tea? l have plenty here. You can-

Oh, no thank you. No thank you. Now, do you make your own tea, generally?

Oh, yes. It’s not very difficult. You just take a tea bag and put it in some hot water. But that’s nothing for a chemist, you know. We often do things like that.

Is that your entire recipe for making tea?

Yes. It just depends critically on how long you leave it. .. In the water... Yes. In the water.

Does the type of tea matter?

Well, I prefer Earl Grey.

How about the type of water?

Oh, that’s a problem. Distilled water in the lab is well known to make the best tea there is. Even our dean has commented on how we want so many stills around. He thinks they’re  for tea. He’s right.

Have you done much research involving tea?

Well, let’s put it this way. It helps in the research.

In what ways?

It tends to give me something to do while I’m thinking. It would help you, too, if you’d like a cup. Would you like one?

Oh, no thank you. Do you ever take milk or sugar in your tea?

Never sugar. I sometimes take milk when it’s available.



Do you ever make a pot of tea?

No. I'm usually drinking tea pretty much by myself. Except when I have company. Would you like some?

Oh, no, really.

I'd be perfectly happy to-

No. Thank you. Do you advise your students to make more than one cup of tea using the same tea bag?

Oh, yes. One tea bag is suitable for more than one cup.

What’s your personal record for number of cups made from the same tea bag?

l don’t go beyond two, because you lose taste.

What do you do with the tea bags afterward?

I save it after the first one, and after the second one I throw it away.

I notice that the cup you’re using here has stains inside it. Do you ever wash that cup?

Hardly ever.

Where do you stand on the issue of dunking?

It depends on what you dunk. I don’t normally like to eat donuts, which are suitable for dunking.

Do you ever use tea for anything other than drinking?

No. Well, to keep my hands warm in winter. It certainly helps when I come in from a cold day to have a nice hot cup to hold onto.

Do you have any favorite tea stories from your youth?

I remember that in my early days I used to have tea every afternoon with my graduate students. That was a time when we could talk about just about anything, including science. That was a very nice ceremony. I really enjoyed that. Somehow I’ve lost that. We don’t do that any more, because people tend to go off to Starbucks or whatever and have their tea somewhere else.

Have you ever had run-ins with British people about the way you drink your tea?

Oh, yes. They don’t like tea bags. They want the tea made fresh. And I tend to agree. It’s just that tea bags are much more convenient.

So what do you do when you have a guest from Britain?

I talk them into using tea bags. They don’t resist very much. In fact, I think there’s now a tendency for the British to begin to use tea bags. Would you like some tea now?

Oh, no thank you.

Do you drink tea?

Yes, I do.

Oh, good. When you’re ready I’ll make some for you.

I appreciate the offer, thank you.

Whenever you’re ready. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a cup now?

No, really. I’ve got to get going.

Would you like to take some tea along?

No. No, thank you. I’ve really got to go.

Why don’t you take some of these tea bags with you. I’ve got plenty.

Oh, no thank you. I really need to go. Thank you for the interview.

You’re welcome! 


Volume 5, Number 4

July/August 199 Special Tea & Coffee Issue

Reprinted from the Annals of Improbable Research, v. 5, # 4, July/Aug. 1999, cover, pp. 11-12 with permission from Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, who has reviewd this entry. Public evidence of this may be seen in that the Annals of Improbable Research links to this "web site with lots of info about Bill."

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