Roald Hoffmann video – and two others – are now available

Roald Hoffmann, April 2012.

The fully transcribed video of Dr. Roald Hoffmann’s presentation, “Indigo – A Story of Craft, Religion, History, Science and Culture,” is now available on the Special Collections & Archives Research Center website.  Hoffmann’s talk was delivered in conjunction with his receipt of the Linus Pauling Legacy Award, presented in Portland on April 19, 2012.

A packed house of some three-hundred people was thoroughly engrossed by Hoffmann’s lecture, which lent credence to the professor’s reputation as a talented speaker.  In tracing the historical development of indigo, Hoffmann first noted that Hebrew scripture has required, from very early on, that a small tassle of the garments worn by observant Jewish males be dyed blue. For generations this decree presented something of a problem in that the only known source of indigo in ancient times was the gland of a specific type of Mediterranean snail – 10,000 of which were required to produce a single gram of dye.

As technologies advanced, various plant species were discovered that could produce a similar shade of blue. However, as Hoffmann noted, the world would need to be completely covered with indigo plants ten feet high to color the 2-3 billion pairs of blue jeans now thought to be produced each year. Hoffmann used this statistic to expound upon the power of chemistry and its ability to create synthetic forms of the dye.

Dr. Hoffmann was the fourth Nobel laureate to receive the Legacy Award and the seventh honoree overall. Previous awardees include chemists Roger Kornberg, Roderick MacKinnon and Jack Roberts, and biologist Matthew Meselson.

Paul Emmett, ca. 1970s.

Two other lectures, both by past OSU Libraries Resident Scholars, are also now freely available online.

The Useful Science of Paul Emmett,” given by Dr. Burtron Davis of the University of Kentucky, discusses Davis’ ongoing research in support of a biography of Emmett (1900-1985), who is remembered today as the “Dean of Twentieth-Century Catalysis Chemistry.”

Emmett is recalled by Davis – once a post-doctoral student of Emmett’s – to have been a kind and talented man who enjoyed a long and distinguished career. Best known for his formulation, with Stephen Brunaur and Edward Teller, of the BET equation, (which Davis calls “Nobel quality work”) Emmett also made major contributions to the scientific understanding of ammonia synthesis and the Fischer-Tropsch process. In reviewing these highlights of Emmett’s biography, Davis’ lecture provides both an overview of Emmett’s major scientific achievements while also lending a glimpse into Emmett’s habits and personality from one who knew him and has continued to study his work.

A second lecture, “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Life of Ava Helen Pauling,” was delivered by Oregon State University professor of history Dr. Mina Carson, who is writing a biography of Ava Helen.  Carson’s talk, which was given in late 2009, reflects her thinking at that time as she developed the framework of her book, which will be published in 2013.

At the time, she noted that attempting to write the life of Ava Helen Pauling forces the biographer to confront a number of difficult questions. Perhaps the most vexing is this: how does the biographer write the life of a wife? In particular, a wife who enjoyed her own world-changing career but whose life and work were inseparably fused with, and in many ways dependent upon, her husband’s work and fame?  In ruminating on these topics, Carson also reflects on the major choices that Ava Helen made at critical points in her life as she sought to clarify her own interests and identity.

These three releases comprise only the latest additions to the large cache of digitized video available on the SCARC website.  The full list of contents is available here.


Dr. Paul Emmett, 1900-1985

Dr. Paul Emmett, 1970s

Dr. Paul Emmett, 1970s

The catalysis chemist Dr. Paul Emmett is one of many distinguished scientists to have attended Oregon State University. He was born in Portland, Oregon on September 22, 1900 to a railroad worker and his wife, and had two sisters. Historian Dr. Burt Davis, who is writing a biography of Emmett’s life, notes that much is unclear about Emmett’s early years. It is known, however, that the family moved a lot due to the demands of working for a railroad. For at least one year, his mother worked as a cook for the railroad and both of his parents lived on one of the train cars.

Dr. Emmett and another of OSU’s hometown science heroes, Dr. Linus Pauling, were classmates in their high school years as well as at Oregon Agricultural College (later to become Oregon State University) and the California Institute of Technology.  [Click here for video of Emmett recounting an early chemical experiment in which he and Pauling combined their duel interests in rail tracks and mischief.] In fact, for a year the two men lived together at Caltech, along with Emmett’s mother, and actually shared a bed, which they used sequentially. (Pauling would go to bed around 3 AM, right about the time that Emmett was usually waking up.) According to Dr. Davis, during his graduate study years at Caltech, Emmett suffered from extreme fatigue and was told by a doctor to take short naps after lunch, a practice that he followed for the remainder of his life.

Linus Pauling and Paul Emmett, 1920.

Linus Pauling and Paul Emmett, 1920.

After completing his graduate studies, Emmett taught chemistry at OAC for one year, before moving in 1926 to a research position at the Department of Agriculture’s Fixed Nitrogen Laboratory. There he sought out a better understanding of the mechanisms by which ammonia could be taken out of the air and turned into a fertilizer for plants. Emmett knew that the Germans had developed just such a mechanism during World War I, but scientists did not entirely understand how and why the process worked.

The result of this investigation was the Brunauer-Emmett-Teller (BET) Method, which remains the second-most cited scientific paper on the process and a technique still in use worldwide. The BET Method provides scientists with the ability to measure a variety of properties of gas molecules on a solid surface: the surface area, the composition of the surface, and the amount of catalyst that is both on the surface and in the interior of the solid. Dr. Emmett’s work on the BET Method earned him a Nobel Prize nomination.

After this success and the widespread construction of ammonia plants around the world, the government lost interest in this line of research and, in 1937, Dr. Emmett moved to the Johns Hopkins University. Emmett stayed in the Johns Hopkins chemistry department until 1943, when he joined the Manhattan Project as a manager – not a researcher – and relocated to Columbia University.

The focus of the Columbia laboratory – which was the first of five labs to work on the atomic bomb – was the separation of uranium isotopes. In particular, the laboratory sought to convert uranium into a corrosive gas, uranium hexafluoride, but found that their methods required a material that would not be corroded by the gas. One of Emmett’s men developed a suitable substance, which eventually became the forerunner to today’s Teflon.

It is also worth noting that, while working on the Manhattan Project, Dr. Emmett frequently had lunch with Percival “Dobie” Keith, the Oak Ridge developer who spurred Emmett’s interest in the Fischer-Tropps process, a method used to create synthetic fuels.

In 1944 Dr. Emmett moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the Mellon Institute but continued to consult for the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, which kept him abreast of developments in nuclear reactions – including the isotopes made by such reactions – for the remainder of his career. At the Mellon Institute, Emmett’s research group further refined the Fischer-Tropps process and also introduced the use of carbon isotopes as a means for studying reaction mechanisms and pathways. The Emmett lab’s carbon isotope studies comprised an important contribution to the study of oxygen mechanisms and, in the process, supplanted a theory that had been in place for over thirty years.

Emmett in the laboratory, 1950s

Emmett in the laboratory, 1950s

In 1955 Emmett returned to the John Hopkins University, this time as a chemistry professor and the W.R. Grace Research Professor and Grace Advisory Board Member. (It was also during this time that his first wife, Lola, died after having become very ill at a doctor’s office in Pittsburgh and subsequently lapsing into a coma for eight months.) Emmett stayed at Johns Hopkins until his retirement in 1971, though he continued on as a consultant at W.R. Grace, visiting three or four times a year from the home that he shared with his sister in Oregon.

For the first year of his “retirement,” Emmett taught chemistry at Oregon State University, thus returning full circle to his first professional appointment. From the following year until his death, Dr. Emmett likewise worked as a research professor at Portland State University. In the mid-1970s, Dr. Emmett married Pauline Pauling, the sister of his old friend, Linus Pauling. Dr. Pauling often visited the couple in their home and Pauline, a very lively woman even in her later years, took care of Dr. Emmett until his death.

Pauline and Paul Emmett, 1980s.

Pauline and Paul Emmett, 1980s.

Paul Emmett died on April 22, 1985 after a gradual decline brought about by Parkinson’s disease and a brain tumor. Though he spent the final month of his life in a hospital, Emmett steadfastly refused to talk about his health, preferring to discuss fishing and golf instead.

In the estimation of Burt Davis, one “couldn’t find a better person” than Paul Emmett. He is uniformly remembered as a very pleasant and thoughtful man who tended to think the best of everyone.

For more, please visit the Paul Emmett Papers homepage.

Resident Scholar, Dr. Burt Davis

Dr. Burt Davis lecturing on Paul Emmett in the OSU Libraries Special Collections reading room.  Photo by Philip Vue.

Dr. Burt Davis lecturing on Paul Emmett in the OSU Libraries Special Collections reading room. Photo by Philip Vue.

For several weeks in April, there was a new yet familiar face roaming the stacks of the OSU Libraries Special Collections. It was Dr. Burtron “Burt” Davis of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, who had traveled across the country to research his former mentor, Dr. Paul Emmett. Dr. Davis is the first researcher to conduct work in Special Collections under the Resident Scholar Program.

Dr. Davis is a self-described “hillbilly from West Virginia.” He originally wanted to be a teacher so he attended Potomac State College in Keyser, West Virginia, where he earned his associate degree but did not do any research work. He then transferred to West Virginia University and earned his Bachelor of Science in chemistry in 1959. He had originally planned to study agriculture but found that he hated his classes. Needing to pick something as a replacement, he choose chemistry, which he ended up enjoying.

Following his graduation, Davis began working in Philadelphia at Atlantic Refining from 1959-1962, while concurrently taking night classes and earning his Master of Science from St. Joseph’s College (now St. Joseph’s University). When he decided to return to graduate school to earn his doctorate in 1962, he asked a professor for letters of recommendation to four schools. The instructor instead gave him a recommendation to a fifth school, the University of Florida, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1965.

Davis worked under Paul Emmett while completing his post-doctorate research on catalysis at the John Hopkins University from 1965-1966. He then worked for four years (1966-1970) at Mobil, where he discovered a platinum-10 catalyst for converting gasoline from low-octane to high-octane.

Judith and Peter Freeman, sponsors of the Resident Scholar Program. Photo by Philip Vue.

Judith and Peter Freeman, sponsors of the Resident Scholar Program. Photo by Philip Vue.

In 1970, Davis decided that he would like to teach and accepted a position at Potomac State College as an Associate Professor of Chemistry. After seven years of teaching, Davis felt the urge to return to research and so began working at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, where he remains working full-time to this day. Davis’ scholarly track record is prolific. He is a member of the American Chemical Society, including the divisions of Fuel, Colloid and Surface Chemistry, Petroleum, and History of Chemistry. He is likewise credited with over 400 publications as either an author or a co-author.

Paul Emmett is not the only scientist that Dr. Davis has researched. Indeed, Davis has made a hobby of collecting research on the great scientists of our time and, as he has progressed through his career, he has grown to appreciate and become more interested in history. This appreciation and interest has led him to preserve history. Not long after completing his postdoctoral work, he suggested to the editor of the Journal of Chemical Education that Dr. Emmett be featured in a monthly section the of journal in which a chemist is interviewed. The editor agreed that it should be done but said that he could not conduct the interview himself. In response, Davis chose to take a few days off from his work at Potomac State College, flew to Chicago and interviewed Dr. Emmett. The resulting article can be found in the April 1978 edition of J. of Chem. Ed.

In 1985, the American Chemical Society organized a gathering to honor Dr. Emmett, who unfortunately died during the preparations. Emmett’s death led Dr. Davis to thinking about ways to further document other living scientists. Shortly thereafter he began a project, which continues to this day, of videotaping interviews with and seminars delivered by all manner of scientists. As of now, he has videotaped over 2,000 individuals, including ten Nobel Prize winners. But his interest started with Paul Emmett.

Davis is planning on writing a biography of Dr. Emmett. Through his work in the OSU Libraries Special Collection, he has uncovered new information that has led him to sources and topics about which he had not been previously aware (although Emmett’s own notes appear to be the only resources available to learn about certain aspects of his early life). One particular surprise was learning the degree to which Emmett was such a detailed and organized scientist. Emmett outlined his research as he was taught to outline a speech in his high school- and Oregon Agricultural College debate teams, developing step-by-steps notes on the procedures that he intended to follow. This noted, Emmett evidently did not take notes at meetings. He was blessed with a photographic memory and could easily re-plot a graph that he had seen at a presentation.

Dr. Davis hopes to have his biography published sometime in the next six to twelve months. Please check back on Thursday when we’ll further discuss the life and work of his subject, catalysis chemist Dr. Paul Emmett.

Dr. Davis in lecture, April 2009. Photo by Philip Vue.

Dr. Davis in lecture, April 2009. Photo by Philip Vue.