World-renowned chemist Josef Michl on figuring out mysteries, 1968 – and a remarkable WWII story

Josef Michl, photo: CTK

Last week the Boulder-based Josef Michl was in his native Prague to receive the prestigious Neuron award for lifelong contribution to world science in the field of chemistry. Professor Michl became one of the planet’s top experts in his area – organic photochemical reactions – after deciding not to return to Czechoslovakia from abroad in the wake of the 1968 Soviet invasion. When we spoke, a question about his memories of the end of WWII (he was born in 1939) prompted an extraordinary story. One day in February 1945, little Josef’s mother had wanted to take him and his brother home via their usual route, up Vinohradská St. But the boys wanted to see some machine at the main train station – and the three were taking a parallel street home when an air raid began.

Josef Michl,  photo: CTK
“There was a German soldier there, with a gun. The sirens started to sound and he told my mother she must go into a cellar, into one of the houses nearby.

“Of course, you listen to a soldier with a gun.

“So we did, but the door was locked and we couldn’t get in. So she tried the next house, and the door was locked.

“And then the bombs started to fall. Mostly incendiary bombs. She put us against the wall and sort of leaned over us.

“I was angry at her because I wanted to take a close look at one of these incendiary bombs but she wouldn’t let me.

“Then a big bomb fell and all the glass in all the windows in the house where we stood came down, crashing to the street.

“I remember she washed shards of glass out of her hair for a couple weeks after that.

“Then there was a lull in the bombing and she found a house that was actually open, so we went in there and were in the cellar.

“The roof was on fire and people made a human chain carrying up pails of water. Again we wanted to help but she wouldn’t let us – we had a terrible mother [jokingly].

“Then we finally made it home and discovered that the main street, on which she wanted to go, had many dead people who were killed by bombs, because the bombs fell mostly there.

“Decades later I was in Utah, where I was living at the time, at one of the state parks, Goblin. Another car pulled up and a family got out.

Bombing of Prague in 1945,  photo: archive of JuDr. Jaroslav Lašťovka,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“The man noticed I spoke with an accent and asked, Where are you from?

“I said, Prague. He said, Ah, Prague, you know I bombed Prague during WWII.

“I looked at him and said, When was that? And after a while we established that he was a navigator in one of the aircraft that were throwing bombs at us.

“He said, You know, it was a mistake – we thought we were bombing Dresden.”

Wow, that’s quite a story. What was it the first drew you to the field of chemistry?

“It was an experiment that my fourth grade teacher did. She heated potassium permanganate in a test tube. That produces oxygen.

“She took an ember and stuck it into the test tube and it burst into flames. And I thought, Jeez, this is what I want to do with my life.”

Years later you went from Czechoslovakia to Houston to work. How did you find doing chemistry in the US in those days compared to in communist Czechoslovakia?

“It was very different. Access to equipment, access to chemicals, lab work – everything was much easier.”

Sometimes people say that some areas of study were kind of politically neutral during the communist era. Was chemistry one of those?

“The man said, Ah, Prague, you know I bombed Prague during WWII.”

“Yes. Many people who were my classmates actually didn’t want to be chemists at all.

“They would have liked to have studied journalism or law, or other humanities. But they were not acceptable because they had the wrong cadre origins, so to speak.”

You were abroad when the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia took place in August 1968. Was it an easy decision not to come back here?

“No, it certainly was not easy. I returned from Texas in 1967 and then I was somewhat politically active during the Prague Spring.

“I was one of the founding members of the Club of Engaged Non-Party Members.

“So when in I was in Scandinavia, in Norway, for a few weeks, and the invasion occurred, I hesitated for several weeks before taking a decision.

“It was not at all clear what would happen to people who were politically active: whether they would be shot or hanged, whether they would only be put in jail or just lose their jobs.

“That was a consideration in the decision making. Plus, I had had enough of the regime. It was hard.

“But deciding to leave family behind, everybody I knew, all my friends from youth and so on – that’s not an easy decision.”

If we could speak about your work in general. You have helped improve mobile telephones, computers, solar panels. Which of your innovations or discoveries has had most impact, do you think?

Illustrative photo: European Commission
“I think that the description you gave is not correct.

“I’m working on the fundamentals of science that might possibly one day improve mobile telephones or solar cells or other things.

“It is the fundamentals that attract me.

“And I think that the most important contribution has been trying to, or maybe understanding how photochemical reactions of chemical compounds actually occur – how to best describe them in a way that allows you to make predictions for other reactions and extrapolate, and so on and so forth.

“That took decades – work on this.

“And the work I’m doing now on singlet fission, which relates to solar cells, is actually a continuation of that same thing.”

Is it particularly satisfying for you when real world impact or are you equally satisfied achieving things in the lab?

“I am really most pleased by figuring out some mystery. If I can figure out why it is that things work the way they do, that gives me pleasure.”

From your years of coming back here to Prague, how do you think the teaching of chemistry and maybe the sciences in general compares here to in Western countries?

“It was not clear what would happen those politically active in the Prague Spring: whether they would be shot or hanged, whether they would only be put in jail or just lose their jobs.”

“Well, I have not really taught here lately and my impressions may be outdated, because the knowledge I have of how one teaches here is some decades old.

“In general I have the impression that students learn a great deal of material, facts, here, probably more than in the States or other Western countries, at the same age.

“But they are less creative. Perhaps naturally, innately, they would be just as creative. Because, after all, I think the mental and physical properties of people are basically the same in every nation.

“But the way that they are taught, the way that the classes are structured, they are not challenged to be creative and independent.

“And they don’t ask questions nearly as much as students do in my classes in the States.”

You gave USD 100,000 to help young scientists here in the Czech Republic [at Charles University’s Faculty of Science]. That’s a lot of money by any standards. What prompted you to do that?

“Well, I felt gratitude to the institution that gave me the initial information, the initial knowledge that I had to have to get launched in a career in science, in chemistry.

“I felt it would only be fitting to make it possible for the next generation, actually ‘over-next’ [laughs], the young generation of today, to benefit from some of what I have accumulated or gained as a result.

“So, yes – gratitude.”

“If I can figure out why it is that things work the way they do, that gives me pleasure.”

You’ve just received the Neuron award here in Prague. You’ve received many honours and prizes over the years – but does it mean something more to get this kind of award here at home?

“Of course it does. You know that nobody is a prophet in his own village, right?

“So if the place where you grew up, the place where people remember how you wet your pants when you were a little boy, acknowledges what you have accomplished, it’s special. Of course it is special.

“I really appreciate it.”