I am early to a celebratory dinner in honour of the 2019 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, Dr John Goodenough. This is a modest affair taking place in his home in Austin, Texas. As I knock and then enter into the house of a man whose door has always been open to whomever is interested in open dialogue on any topic, whose mantra is "build bridges not walls" ( a statement he incorporates into almost every media interview he's done since the current US administration took office), I find the 97-year-old professor sitting alone at his kitchen table.
He has just returned from London where he was being honoured by the Royal Society with a scientific award dating back to 1741 – the Copley Medal. While in London, Goodenough learnt he was this year's co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his part in the development of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery – the same technology powering our smartphones, laptops and the electric car.
The trip to London clearly took it out of him but he’d be the last person to admit it. “I got home in one piece,” he says. No one laughs quite like Goodenough. You could hear it half a mile down the road.
Then as if it were the bell the others were waiting to hear before joining the party, his chuckle serves as the alarm for everyone else invited to his home to arrive at once.
Goodenough invites but four people – an Iranian couple, one of whom is a brilliant engineer he has told me about in the past, a Chinese classically trained pianist/caretaker for the 97-year-old, and me.
In the three years since I have had the good fortune of being assigned by The Irish Times to interview Dr Goodenough, a professor at the department of mechanical engineering in the University of Texas at Austin, we have become good friends.
This isn’t as impressive as it might sound. The man welcomes everyone with open arms into his life, especially anyone from distant lands who might pique his curiosity in things he hasn’t already mastered.
If you stick around long enough, you’ll find yourself helping him put on his shoes, being invited for dinners at his home and given unwanted bottles of whiskey he has received from people who don’t know him well enough to know he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol his entire life.
Born in Jena, Germany, in 1922, Goodenough was brought to the US while still a baby. He struggled with reading and writing from a young age, only discovering later he was dyslexic. This serendipitously drew him away from subjects heavy on writing and towards the more physical sciences and engineering. He obtained a BSc in mathematics from Yale University while simultaneously serving as a US military meteorologist in the second World War.
Later he earned a PhD in physics at the University of Chicago. This was also where he was to meet his future wife, history graduate student Irene Wiseman. (The two remained doting partners to each other until she died in 2016 of Alzheimer's disease.)
Goodenough joined the MIT Lincoln Laboratory upon graduation where he was part of an interdisciplinary team who developed random-access magnetic memory (RAM), a key component of the modern computer. After 24 years at MIT he accepted an offer from the University of Oxford as the new head of their inorganic chemistry laboratory.
It was during his tenure at Oxford that he was to make his most notable scientific discovery. In 1980, he found that by using a compound mixture of lithium and cobalt – lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) – as a lightweight, high-energy density cathode (the starting point from which an electrical current travels from inside a battery), he could double the capacity of lithium-ion batteries.
This work was later commercialised by Sony and the now ubiquitous rechargeable battery was born.
Goodenough would likely have remained at Oxford had they not tried to put him out to pasture when he turned 65. “I don’t ever want to retire,” he has said many times. “Why would anyone retire and simply wait to die?”
Luckily he was offered a position at the UT Austin in 1986 where he has remained ever since. He continues to go to his office five days a week, and is currently supervising his very last PhD student.
He has never stopped trying to innovate and improve upon the battery prototype he invented and the world is still using. Lithium-ion batteries have their shortcomings, containing flammable components not to mention providing a recharge period no longer good enough for the fast-paced 21st century.
Cracking the code
He edges closer and closer to cracking the code on a problem that has dogged engineers for decades – how to develop a prototype that is safer, more efficient, longer lasting and more environmentally friendly.
He will continue trying to find a solution and nothing appears to be slowing him down yet. But he is hungry and says as much to the four invitees.
We sit down at the kitchen table in his modest house, decorated by his late wife with unusual modern art pieces from around the world, and settle into a spread of Persian food while I try to remain present for what is perhaps one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
Geniuses of all kinds surround me. I don’t deserve to be here. But I’ve always been able to make Goodenough laugh. And apparently that’s always been good enough for him.