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Posted by on Nov 28, 2011 in Some reminiscences | 0 comments

“We’ve lost our Nobel Prize winner!!”

In 1971 I was in my last year doing by PhD under the direction of Robert (Bob) F. Snider at the University of British Columbia.  That year Bob was the organizer of the Fourth Canadian Symposium on Theoretical Chemistry.  There were about 200 participants.

I helped Bob with some of the preparations and organization.  Interestingly in 1993, I organized the 11th Canadian Symposium at McGill University with again about 200 participants.

But back in 1971, theoretical chemistry was considered to be quantum chemistry with the goal of using computational methods to solve the Schrodinger Equation for chemical bonding.  Although this important part the theoretical chemistry has made tremendous gains today, Bob wanted to bring into the conference more formalism: statistical mechanics, group theory and spectroscopy.  For example Brian Wybourne, then at U of Chaterbury in NZ gave a brilliant talk on group theory. Chuck Curtiss was there.  He was my academic grandfather and he worked in kinetic theory. Russian born Ilya Prigogine, who became a Belgium citizen, was then at the U. of Texas, Austin and he got the Nobel prize in chemistry a few years later, (1977).

At that time Prigogine was well known.  He was a short rotund man with European airs, and he arrived with a flourish at the first coffee break, wearing his jacket draped over his shoulders, shaking hands and holding court. In the following sessions at question period, he frequently rose to give a long discussion of how in his talk, all the questions raised by the present speaker would be resolved.  In fact I was lost in his talk with so many integrals and symbols.

Charles Coulson (Oxford University) gave a brilliant after banquet speech.  I wish I had a copy but the message was not to let computational aspects of Theoretical Chemistry get in the way of conceptualization of science.

Robert S. Muliken

Robert S. Muliken

However the person there who did have a Nobel Prize was Robert S. Muliken from the University of Chicago (physics). Muliken played a primary role in the development of Molecular Orbital Theory.  He was 74 then.

At that time, it was customary in a week’s symposium to have an outing. Although it was mid-August, Bob, an avid skier, had planned a trip to Whistler mountain where the participants would take the gondola up to the Round House and spend a couple of hours in the clean mountain air and enjoy the surrounding scene of mountains and glaciers.  However the day before the outing, by chance I called Whistler and found that gondola was closed for maintenance, and at that time it was the only way up.

We scrambled and decided to divert the outing to Hope, B.C. where there is a walking trail of several kilometers, along which the participants could marvel at the huge B.C. fir trees.  So off we went.  Everyone was advised to return to the buses at an appointed time, but when Bob did the head, he discovered Muliken was not present. He came out of the bus and said to me,

“We’ve lost our Nobel Prize winner!!”

A quick search of the area did not turn him up.  Bob went on a jog in the opposite direction around the trial and I went looking around in other places. Bob returned, panting, with no luck and I had not found him either. Maybe he had fallen into a gulley along the way.  What were we to do?  We were getting worried.

Eventually we found him.  He had decided the walk was too much for him on that hot day, and so he found a quiet spot behind the convenience store and had fallen asleep.


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