Inspiration Transfer

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.

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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).

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2 thoughts on “Inspiration Transfer

  1. Good to see that the expected result has come by honouring the distinguished scientist. The University’s primary role is to enable such opportunities for intellectual interactions rather regularly, and if UoH has done in this case as its responsibility we all feel highly satisfied. At the same time, can we count the number of “distinguished lectures” that the UoH has organized in the past five years and assess the interaction of the speakers with the academic fraternity of the campus? Personal/political agenda should not be implemented to honour the scholars. The Institution has to ensure standards (often erased by the numbers) in every walk of life. The people at the helm of affairs, while taking decisions on the academic activities, have the reponsibility to ensure that the activities are not retrogessive (dilute academic standards) at UoH. Biologists often believe that a healthy growth got to be a balanced one (the biomass and volume have to be proportionate). Rapid growth invariably is on weak pillars (like obesity) and only can add to problems!! Let us, therefore, encourage deserving people for the honours and maintain the UoH brand.

  2. The idea is simple: we are honored by honoring great people.

    I do not understand, however, what Prof Podile is trying to convey. Most of the work Marcus is famous for is available today in text books. Today many may think that what he did is obvious but that does not diminish the boldness of the step he took before all others. By the way, we recognize this boldness.

    Long time back (when I was a Ph.D. scholar), we had a long chat with Prof. Bloch and one thing he said- that I remember vividly- a little courage takes you a long way. He also joked about the Deans- said that Stanford would have been a better place if only there were fewer Deans. But I digress.

    Standard is not a collective property- if one is good and recognized across the globe- people will come to you even if you are working in a slum. In a partial response to Prof. Podile, I would just like to say that we need to introspect and improve our own standards first. It begins and it ends there. Honors and awards may come (or may not come) later, sometimes much later (and for many, never).

    I hope I have not offended anybody.

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