Watching UT Professor John Goodenough Receive the Nobel Prize in Sweden

Orchestral music filled the packed concert hall. The guests were dressed in tails and gowns. King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden sat in ornate chairs, and a group of brilliant scientists, physicians, economists, and writers were gathered together onstage. This was the scene at the 2019 Nobel Prize awards ceremony on Dec. 10 in Stockholm, where I was fortunate enough to attend as a guest of eminent UT mechanical engineering professor John Goodenough, who was there to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 

A quick flashback: It’s September 2008, and I’ve recently arrived at UT as the new dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering. After hearing so much about John, I wanted to visit with him and learn about his research that led to the invention of the lithium-ion battery, a technology that has revolutionized our modern world by providing sustainable power for everything from smart phones and laptops to hybrid vehicles. 

I walked to the Engineering Teaching Center—a confusing building, especially for a newcomer like myself—in search of John’s office. I got off the elevator and had no idea which hallway to choose. But then I heard a sound echoing through one of the corridors: booming laughter. I recalled being told that John had an unmistakable and contagious laugh. I followed the laughter and, sure enough, it led me right to his office, where he was beaming from ear to ear.  

Now over a decade since that initial encounter, it was remarkable to see John honored at the highest level during the three days of festivities in Sweden. Our trip started with the Nobel Prize lectures, featuring each of the new award recipients. UT professor Ram Manthiram delivered a marvelous presentation highlighting John’s work, which included videos of him explaining key discoveries in metal oxide chemistry from throughout his nearly 70-year research career. John watched intently from the front row, and I could see him taking great pride not only in his scientific breakthroughs, but in the collaborations he’d had with generations of students and post-docs, including professor Manthiram. 

Nearly half of John’s career has been at UT. He was recruited in 1986 from Oxford University and was appointed to one of the first endowed engineering faculty chairs, the Virginia H. Cockrell Centennial Chair in Engineering, which was endowed by Houston’s legendary Cockrell family during UT’s Centennial Campaign. It was truly an honor to have Virginia Cockrell’s son Ernie and his wife Janet—both remarkable philanthropists and dedicated UT supporters—join us in Stockholm to see the world-changing impact of the Cockrells’ visionary investment from decades ago.  

Wherever we went in Stockholm, John was at the center of the action—with groups of young people coming up to him to share well wishes and get autographs and selfies. Through some combination of his ebullient personality, smart phone-powering discovery, and distinction as the oldest person to ever receive a Nobel Prize at age 97, John was a sensation with locals and visitors in the Swedish capital.  

The evening of the prize ceremony was glittering with fresh snow on the streets and large crowds buzzing around the Stockholm Concert Hall. The UT delegation—including Cockrell School of Engineering Dean Sharon Wood and Dr. Jonathan MacClements from the Dell Medical School who provided invaluable assistance as John’s personal physician for the trip—gathered together for a photo session. John was in great spirits, laughing and bantering with all of his guests.  

The ceremony started with great fanfare, as the king, queen, crown princess, and prince of Sweden entered the hall. Dozens of previous Nobel Laureates along with members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, lined the stage. The anticipation was palpable.  

When the chemistry prize was announced, John was the first of the three recipients to be recognized. His aid gently pushed his wheelchair to center stage where he faced the king. After a warm handshake and slight bow to the king and the Swedish Academy, John turned to the audience. He was met with a roar of sustained applause that reverberated throughout the hall. The atmosphere was electric. 

I’ll never forget what it was like to see John, an outstanding UT professor, onstage in that moment, being recognized by the world for his contributions to chemistry, science, and society. I couldn’t hear if he laughed onstage that night, but knowing John, it’s entirely possible.  

On a day in 2008, John helped me find my way with his laugh. Today, and for generations to come, he’ll help billions of people find their way with his lithium-ion battery. I can’t think of a better representation of the creativity, impact, and values of our extraordinary university than the combination of those two elements—John’s intellectual brilliance and his generous spirit. 

Illustration by Roberto Parada; photo courtesy of UT Austin


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