A second bassoonist wins a Nobel Prize

A second bassoonist wins a Nobel Prize


norman lebrecht

November 22, 2015

You may recall the joy that Thomas Südhof spread when, on winning the 2013 Nobel Prize for medicine/physiology in 2013, he said he owed it all to his bassoon teacher.

Südhof, a passionate bassoonist, went on to relate precisely what he had applied from music to his work in science.

Now, the indomitable editors of The Double Reed, have discovered another bassoon player with a Nobel Prize.

William E. Moerner shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Eric Betzig and Stefan W. Hell.

Like Südhof, Moerner teaches at Stanford University. He plays several instruments, including bassoon, and believes that making music is often a prerequisite to breaking down barriers in science. He tells Ryan D. Romine:

A number of my best students (maybe 50%) have strong music skills, something we enjoy during our annual holiday parties. Certainly arts training is a necessary part of a broad education, because we all need to appreciate the arts to see the variety of ways in which our emotions can be expressed.


Moerner goes on to say:

My musical experiences have always tapped into a deep part of my soul in a very personal way. I enjoy the harmonies, the intricacies, and the intellectual challenge, which all probably connect to the rules and structure of science and mathematics, but I also have an emotional connection to music. I met my wife as my partner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Gondoliers, and her parents were co-founders of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of San Jose! These days, I only have time to rehearse once a week to sing in the Stanford Symphonic Chorus or to do some summer sing-alongs, but this is still very fulfilling.

Read Ryan’s full, fascinating interview about music and chemistry – laboratory and personal – in this month’s edition of The Double Reed.


  • Finbar says:

    It’s good that the prizes don’t just go to first bassoonists – section players aren’t given the credit that they deserve a lot of the time, so well done to the Nobel committee for going beyond the Principal’s chair!

    According to Wikipedia (so it must be true), there have been 900 people who have been awarded Nobel prizes since 1901. I reckon that a high proportion of them have probably been amateur musicians…odds on there having been a third bassoonist (contra-?) at some point?

  • Forrest Jennings says:

    Principal bassoonists are too busy practicing to worry about winning Nobel prizes. If prize winnings second bassoonists practiced more they could be principals, but would have to eschew the Nobels. Pick your poison, folks..

  • Mister Mike says:

    Dr. Edward Lawrie Tatum, an amateur horn player and professor at Stanford University, shared the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for studying links between bread mold’s genes and enzymatic reactions. His wife’s name was Viola. You can find a photo of him with his horn and wife here:

  • David says:

    Let’s not forget Richard Feynman (Physics 1965) played a number of percussion instruments.

  • William Safford says:

    Is a contra bassoonist next? Then they would truly comprise a Nobel bassoon section!