We had an unusual treat last Sunday, 11 November. Professor Rudolph A Marcus of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1992) was conferred the degree of Doctor of Science (honoris causa) of the University of Hyderabad.
Marcus, a theoretical chemist, was awarded the prize in 1992 for work that he essentially carried out in the 1950’s, on an explanation of how electrons are transferred from one species to another. Electron transfer is, arguably, the simplest form of a chemical reaction, characterised by the fact that no “bonds are made or broken”. Because charges move around though, there is considerable reorganization of the environment. As has been gradually recognized over the years, electron transfer plays an important role in phenomena ranging from photosynthesis to corrosion. It is not an exaggeration to state, as has often been done, that without it life cannot exist.
The event on Sunday was structured around a formal scientific talk entitled Electron Transfer Reaction Theory in Chemistry – from the Isotopic Exchange Reactions of the 1940s and 1950s to the Modern Solar Energy Conversion Era (see the abstract below). In a discursive introduction to the history of the field, Marcus explained the various different experiments that were necessary to validate the theory and just why the gap between the original theory and the award was so long.The talk was riveting, and not just because Marcus is a Nobelist: the vibrancy and enthusiasm in the delivery belied the speaker’s 89 years. He still teaches and guides students, he finds himself getting interested in current experiments, and is always out to test his theories of which there are several. From the time of his Ph D, which dates to 1946 or thereabouts, to now, it has very much been a life in science and a life of science…
But the true value of his presence came through in his subsequent interaction with students both outside the auditorium (see the picture above) as well as in the Conversation with Rudy Marcus, a free-flowing exchange when anyone could (and did) ask him questions on any aspect of his work and life. As a colleague wrote to me the next day: Two hours with Rudy was like a two semester course!
There was much to learn from him- mainly his passion for science and his approach, that combined a deep appreciation of mathematics with a respect for experiments, and the knowledge that theory cannot be applied if it is not “simple” to do so. And it was difficult not to be enthused- he has been an inspiration to generations of theoretical chemists !- by his continuing curiosity, his enthusiasm, and his intensity.
In his long career, starting at the Brooklyn Polytechnic, then at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and now at the California Institute of Technology, Rudy has taught generations of students, though he has not had a very large research group- four or five students and a couple of postdocs most of the time. The problems he has attacked typically focus on experimentally observable effects. Speaking earlier in Bangalore, on the need for research that solved practical problems, Rudy stressed the importance of universities in enabling the creative process, namely the freedom to think. I have not found it said better or more economically: “In an university, you will be subjected to a regimen of methodological thinking, intellectual labour and structured intellectual activity. At the end of this, one earns cognitive freedom. Such freedom cannot be claimed as a right.”
He has used this freedom rather well.
Electron Transfer Reaction Theory in Chemistry – from the Isotopic Exchange Reactions of the 1940s and 1950s to the Modern Solar Energy Conversion Era
Abstract: The modern study of electron transfer reactions in chemistry began with the study of the simplest class of reactions in all of chemistry, isotopic exchange reactions in which no chemical bonds are broken or formed. The theory, stimulated by those pioneering studies, and based on the Franck-Condon principle, led to many experimental predictions and tests. The field itself blossomed from a tiny corner of chemistry, the field of isotopic exchange reactions in the 1940s – 1950s to include a wide spectrum of reactions and processes, including those in electrochemistry, in chemiluminescent electron transfers, in biological systems, in photosynthesis, and in man-made solar energy conversion devices. In the present talk, we describe some of those developments.
R. A. Marcus, Electron Transfer Theory and its Inception, Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 14, 13729-13730 (2012).