Air and Fire, Earth under Water

by Kiko Matsing

Paul Flory Linus Pauling Gabor Somorjai
Priestly Medalists, from left: Paul Flory (1974),
Linus Pauling (1984), and Gabor Somorjai (2008 )

Every other year, the American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting includes a Tribology Symposium under the Colloids and Interfaces division. This year, the meeting was held in New Orleans, and I was able to participate by presenting our research on the conformational origins of polymer brush lubrication. The Priestly Medal went to Gabor Somorjai for his contributions to surface science and catalysis. He essentially established the field here in the US, popularly being referred to as the “father of modern surface chemistry”. I keep a copy if his Chemistry in Two Dimensions: Surfaces (1981), based on his lectures at Cornell, handy on my office bookshelf. Our research group traces its lineage to his group at UC Berkeley, where my professor spent his postdoc years. We now employ the ultra-high vacuum (UHV) techniques of surface anayses and scanning probe microscopies (SPM) to study tribological phenomena. I was therefore excited to listen to his talk, and did not miss the chance to take a photo with him. It was a little bit odd being somewhat of a scientist’s groupie, but Somorjai–a huge bear of a Hungarian–was surprisingly warm and winsome. He then awkwardly excused himself for his autograph-signing appointment.

The Priestly Medal is the highest honor given by the ACS. It is named after the English cleric, Joseph Priestly, who first isolated oxygen, which, according to Thomas Kuhn, led to the 18th century revolution in our understanding of chemical reactions. Previous recipients include some of those I consider “heroes” in my field, including Paul Flory and Linus Pauling. Flory contributed to our understanding of polymers in solution, and wrote the classic book on the subject, Principles of Polymer Chemistry (1953), also based on lectures given at Cornell. Pauling is considered one of the greatest chemists of the 20th century. Watson and Crick trembled at the prospect of him discovering the structure of DNA ahead of them, and he probably would have eventually. He was crucial in elucidating the nature of chemical bonding, and wrote two seminal textbooks: The Nature of the Chemical Bond and the Structure of Molecules and Crystals (1939) and General Chemistry (1949). A contemporaneous review of the former shows his somewhat idiosyncratic character:

Dr. Pauling has been so successful in his attack upon many of the problems that his advocacy of the doctrine of the infallibility of Pasadenean research and the somewhat pontifical style in which this book is written are understandable and should not be taken amiss.

In the 1980’s I saw an octogenarian Pauling guest in the Phil Donahue show promoting vitamin C therapy for cancer. Medical professionals in the field disagreed with him. Was the venerable scientist becoming senile? Well, at least he was not as crackpot as Watson turned out to be. I still take 1000 mg of vitamin C before going to sleep, whenever I feel stressed or a cold coming, and I always feel better the next day.

Linus Pauling Book
James Watson Book
Watson: “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours–whereas all the testing says not really”. Yawn.

Flory and Pauling also won the Nobel Prize; Somorjai should have. Last year’s recipient for Chemistry was Germany’s Gerhard Ertl “for his studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces”. Somorjai should have at least shared in the prize for his pioneering work on the same field. We were shocked by the spectacular oversight. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Hey, Al Gore got half the Peace prize for his Global Warming Powerpoint roadshow. Gasp! I need oxygen!