Fresh off of a world tour that’s brought him from the Annual Director’s Dinner at the Science Museum in London to the Wiley Impact Forum in Seoul — with stops in Germany, Israel and Spain in between — Sir J. Fraser Stoddart will speak at the TSRC Town Talk at the Telluride Conference Center in Mountain Village Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. 

Internationally renowned for his pioneering work, Stoddart studies the fundamental science that makes molecular machines possible. His breakthrough work involving a rotaxane with a sliding ring molecule earned Stoddart the 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry, along with his molecular machine colleagues, Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Ben Feringa. The trio’s work has brought the development of molecular ratchets, elevators, muscles and cars.

Not bad for a man who, for the first 18 years of his life, was raised without electricity on a rented farm in Scotland.

Prior to World War II, Stoddart’s farm life was quite separate from the outside world, but many things changed for the family — and for the world — after the conflict.

“Agriculture post World War II in the UK and Scotland was undergoing an incredible revolution. The first images I saw as a little boy from my window were horses and carts, that was 1945-47 and that (shifted) to tractors and cars and all sorts of farm implements,” Stoddart said. “From using the human body and animal power to creating machines to do the work for us, all starting from the invention of the most simple machine — the wheel. The wheel has allowed the timeline of machinery to progress through the ages.”  

Stoddart’s parents were very supportive of his education — though it was not just book learning in a school setting that set him on his illustrious path. His ability to multitask and juggle jobs on the farm also figured into the picture, helping a curious young man evolve into a brilliant, Nobel Award-winning scientist.

In remembering a professor from a practical class in quantitative analytical chemistry, Stoddart said, “He made two comments to the class of about 150 of us. ‘You will be all the better with your open mouth far from the desk; there’s enough cyanide to fill all of Edinburgh.’ And, rather arrogantly, ‘It’s a 10-week course and nobody has ever finished it.’ I said to myself, ‘I’ll show him’ — and finished in seven weeks. The reason I was able to do that was because of what I had learned on the farm: I didn’t sit there and do one experiment, then another and another. I did three at once.”  

Stoddart also understood that the march of technology is all about identifying design flaws and making the necessary improvements: The inefficiencies of the steam engine ultimately led to rocket engines and all-electric vehicles. 

In a similar way, biological machines led Stoddart and his group toward molecular machines. 

Molecular machines are the smallest machines in the world, and they can bend and move things hundreds of times heavier than themselves. The machines can move in defined directions and are about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.

Currently these machines are basically just molecules swimming around in a solution, driven by sunlight and electricity. In the future, however, Stoddart and his colleagues are betting molecular machines will be used for creating new materials, sensors and energy storage systems. Given time and development, molecular machines may one day work inside the human body, delivering drugs directly to cancerous cells or other specific areas of tissue. 

Just as many once stood puzzled to the future uses of electric motors and steam engines, we can now only guess at the importance of Stoddart’s contributions. There is, no doubt, huge potential for a new revolution based on molecular machines. 

Stoddart’s Town Talk is the third in a seven-week series sponsored by the nonprofit Telluride Science Research Center (TSRC), the world’s largest independent molecular science center, with a network of over 5,000 preeminent scientists from over 90 countries and 500 institutions. His presentation will be followed by an interview and Q&A session moderated by Emmy and Peabody award-winning television correspondent and professor emerita of broadcast journalism at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, Judy Muller. 

Admission is free; cash bar opens at 6 p.m. To learn more about TSRC and the capital campaign to purchase the Telluride Depot as TSRC’s permanent home, visit telluridescience.org