Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Tribute to the Nobel Laureate William N. Lipscomb

Professor William "Bill" Lipscomb, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and long-time Harvard professor, passed away on April 14, 2011, at age 91.

I had heard a lot about Professor Lipscomb since my husband had been in the same class at Lafayette College as his son, James, and he had met him several times. Later, I even met Professor Lipscomb at a chamber music event at Brown University organized by the American Mathematical Society (AMS) (all performers had to be members of the AMS so since his particular instrument, the clarinet, was needed, he was quickly made an honorary member).

It was clear that not only did Professor Lipscomb love music and performing, and wearing a string tie, even to the Nobel ceremony, but he also loved science and he was so successful at it. The Nobel laureate, Dr. Linus Pauling, was his mentor and Lipscomb switched from physics (my husband's major) to chemistry under his influence.

Not only did Dr. Lipscomb receive a Nobel prize, but two of his graduate students did, as well, plus another student who had spent time in his lab! And it all started with a chemistry set that he received at age 11.

His sense of humor was legendary, and he was an avid participant in the annual Ig Nobel prize ceremonies at Harvard (which I have blogged about).

The Boston Globe, in a touching obituary
, has the following quote from Professor Lipscomb, which is so true:

“A scientist proceeds in making discoveries in very much the same way that an artist goes about working,’’ Dr. Lipscomb said in a 1981 US News & World Report interview.

“You have to master a large discipline, and your discoveries are not necessarily made by planning them. They arise intuitively. You suddenly perceive brand-new connections that you were unaware of before. Material somehow reorganizes itself in your mind, and that leads to the spawning of a new group of ideas.’’

According to his son, James, Lipscomb was humble and exhibited his characteristic self-deprecating humor even after being awarded the Nobel.

"He said something like 'I knew that I'd written a lot of good papers, but I didn't know that anyone had read them,'" James said.