Edwin Hart ’34 Ph.D.
Sometimes little accidents can add up, as Edwin Hart, one of the century’s greatest chemists, knew well. In early 1963 Hart conducted an experiment at Argonne National Laboratory on the effects of pulsed radiation on water. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but when his spectrograph indicated a blue glow, he knew he’d stumbled across something important. In repeated tests it became clear that Hart’s experiment had yielded the first-ever controlled observation of the hydrated electron.
Such electrons had never been observed in isolation before. Although Hart’s experiment only freed them for a fraction of a second in a small quantity of water, he was able to begin precisely calculating their properties—observations that would provide a baseline for understanding many of the most complicated processes in chemistry.
“Hart’s work showed the details of some very simple things that were taking place,” says Professor of Chemistry Ron Lawler, “and everything else went on from there.”
As a scientist concentrating on radiation chemistry at the Argonne National Lab from 1948 to 1975, Hart worked on discoveries that have influenced such practical applications as cancer therapy and nuclear-reactor technology. As a result, Hart, who died in 1995, won a number of international awards and served on the United Nations second international conference on peaceful uses of atomic energy.
Even after retirement, Lawler says, Hart remained an indefatigable investigator. During a year’s sabbatical at Argonne, Lawler remembers running into Hart in the cafeteria shortly before his death in May 1995. Hart had recently started a new collaboration with a group of German scientists to investigate the effects of ultrasonic waves.
“He told me he didn’t know what he was going to find,” Lawler recalls, “but no one else was studying it, so it seemed like a good idea.”
Herman B. Goldstein’s work fell squarely in the second category. When it comes to practical impact, his development of the permanent-press fabric treatment is hard to beat. Working at Sun Chemical Corporation, Goldstein, a textile chemist, developed a solution that, when first applied to fabrics in 1962, miraculously stopped them from wrinkling. In one stroke he liberated housewives from the melancholy drudgery of ironing, triggered a boom in the sales of washers and dryers, and took us one giant step closer to the leisure suit.
Although shareholders benefited financially from his invention, Goldstein, who died earlier this year, did not. Still, he was happy to accept the 1985 Millson Award for Invention from the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists, taking the success of his invention in stride. “It doesn’t bother me that I didn’t benefit directly,” he once confided to a reporter. “When you’re employed as a scientist, they don’t owe you for your discoveries. It’s your job.”
When robert parr was getting ready to graduate from Brown, he had to make a deal with his chemistry professor. “I’d been playing too much bridge, and I’d missed a few classes,” he says. Parr’s professor gave him a B on the promise that he would stick around and work in the professor’s lab.
Parr’s enthusiasm for chemistry would never have to be coerced again. The author of Density-Functional Theory of Atoms and Molecules, Parr in the 1960s “developed a variety of techniques to calculate the approximate property of molecular materials that are still being used today,” says Jimmie Doll, professor of chemistry. Parr also took complicated mathematical formulas for determining the relationships between atoms and molecules, and, according to Doll, “turned theoretical models into things that could go into the workaday laboratory.”
Parr has received numerous awards and citations for his work, including the prestigious Irving Langmuir Award from the American Chemical Society in 1994. According to Doll, many in the scientific community feel that Parr’s work was at the heart of what secured the 1998 Nobel Prize in chemistry for chemist Walter Kohn and physicist John Pople. “He did not share in the prize,” Doll says, “which many think is unjust.”