Congratulations to Martin Karplus


We were delighted to learn last week that Martin Karplus will be one of three individuals to share the 2013 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Karplus is among Linus Pauling’s many scientific descendants, having worked as a graduate student under Pauling in the early 1950s. A bit later, Karplus worked with Pauling and E. Bright Wilson, Jr. on an ill-fated project to publish a revised version of Pauling and Wilson’s 1935 text, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics.  We documented this story in May 2010.

In another life, the blog dabbles in oral history and it was our great good fortune to interview Dr. Karplus during a trip that he made to Corvallis just this past summer.  A few excerpts about his Pasadena experience are included below; the entire interview has been archived in our History of Science Oral History Collection (OH 17).

On choosing Caltech after finishing his undergraduate studies at Harvard...

My brother was at the Advanced Institute working with Oppenheimer and I’d decided I wanted to go west and I would either go to Caltech or Berkeley. I was admitted to both of them. And, as I said, I visited my brother and he introduced me to Oppenheimer, who had been professor both at Berkeley and Caltech and I asked him what he would do. And we talked a little bit about things and I’m not sure that he was aware that really I was going to go into biology rather than into chemistry. But he – I still remember the statement of his that Caltech was a ‘shining light in a sea of darkness,’ and he strongly recommended going to Caltech as being a smaller place where somebody like me would be able to really do what I wanted to do. So I think that was it. I mean, in those days you didn’t visit the schools or anything. So I think he was basically – well I talked with my brother about it, also, but that was sort of how I made my decision to go to Caltech and I think it was a good decision.

On taking classes from Pauling…

He was a great lecturer. But the most impressive thing was that he gave the students problems as homework problems and everyone worked very hard on them. Then it turned out that he actually didn’t know the answer to this problem and so there was a lot of discussion of this. At the time I was sort of annoyed, but afterwards realized that this was really very important, to learn the difference between doing your homework when you know that there is an answer, you can always find it, and doing research, where obviously there may be an answer somewhere but it’s not so easy to find. But that was part of his methodology.

On Pauling as a doctoral adviser…

…people built their careers on Pauling’s ideas. I still remember when I started, every morning when I would come in there would be this little yellow sheet in my mailbox, saying ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to do so-and-so?’ And at first I felt ‘okay, well Pauling wants me to look at that, I’ve got to work on it. I don’t have time to do what I’m really doing on my thesis.’ So this went on for a little while until Alex Rich and some of the other people that I talked with said ‘look, Pauling does this to everybody, he doesn’t expect you to do it. You can either throw them away or you can store them and maybe they’re ideas that you could really work out.’

….And, if we’re talking about experiences, one was my qualifying oral, where Pauling asked me to discuss his theory of metals, which I knew something about. So I said innocently, ‘well, let’s start with copper,’ and I said ‘let me see, what’s the atomic number of copper?’ And so Pauling looked at me and said ‘well, you start with hydrogen and you work your way up and then you’ll get to copper.’ So, with a certain amount of fumbling, I finally did get there, but everybody was terribly amused and Pauling afterwards sort of said to me ‘now look, you’re a very bright fellow. But one thing, if you’re a chemist, you should know, is the periodic table. So that very much impressed me.

Martin Karplus and Linus Pauling, 1960s.

Martin Karplus and Linus Pauling, 1960s.

On a memorable party with the roommates…

We had a big party at the – we lived in this house in Altadena where a number of us, Sidney Bernhard, Alex Rich; Matt Meselson was involved in it too. We all lived together. I and Sidney were the cooks and the others washed the dishes and cleaned up, and we had this big party. We had often had parties and Dick Feynman would come and play the drums. And Pauling and Ava Helen came to this party.

We had a lot of snails in the garden and Pauling went out and collected them. And I thought, ‘okay, he likes snails, he’s going to go home and Ava Helen is going to cook them.’ What I discovered later when I was working – I did a lot of cooking and working in restaurants – is that it’s really a very complicated process to prepare the snails and you would have to let them sit for about a week or so until they eat up all their own slime. I never asked what they actually did with them, with this collection, but he had this big collection of snails which he took home.

On Richard Feynman…

I remember he gave a public lecture on water which was just unbelievable. He really had insights, and of course there’s this now famous quote in the Feynman lecture series, which is something like ‘everything that happens in life has to do with the wiggling and jiggling of atoms,’ and now almost everybody who works in molecular dynamics uses this quote as a sort of introduction on their importance. I talked with him a number of times about looking at larger systems and he was very encouraging. Though I must say that when I took his quantum mechanics course, it was difficult in the sense that he taught quantum mechanics from his point of view, with path integrals and such, and for people who didn’t know quantum mechanics already, it would have been very difficult. On the other hand, it was a difficult period, but it actually taught me a lot of things, which I’ve used since then.

Anyways, when he came to our parties he played the drums; he was really part of the Caltech spirit. I think most other schools you wouldn’t expect a professor like that, to come to the party with some students, say ‘look, why don’t you come up there, we’re having a big party tonight…’

One Response

  1. […] lab at the California Institute of Technology, and where he lived with future Nobel laureate Martin Karplus, a fellow student of […]

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