I remember certain people who were exceptional in different ways. Here are three of them. Two were my students and one was on my industrial research team.
Joe sat front and center in lecture from the first day. The course was “Theoretical Aspects of Organic Analyses.” A few lectures into GLC rate and plate theory Joe was obviously troubled, especially about the Van Deemter parameters. I spent some time with him, one-on-one, to no avail. He dropped the class. I gave the course a few quarters later and the problem this time was NMR. He dropped again. In talking with colleagues I discovered that Joe took 6 years to pass freshman and sophomore chemistry (this was before a student could be dismissed for “lack of progress”). I also discovered that Joe was a declared chem. major. One colleague who had him in the first course in biochemistry said he dropped out as soon as enzyme catalysis was treated. When I next saw Joe he told me he was going to “solve” the courses that he dropped. I suggested to him that, with all his tenacity of purpose, he should consider employing it to succeed in a different area that might hold equal interest for him and in which he might have more success. He demurred and assured me that he was determined to get a degree in chemistry. About 20 years later I found his full name, an uncommon one, listed as senior author on a paper in JACS! On contacting him, I found he was the same Joe I had in class.
The second student was exceptional in a different way. He also sat front and center. The course was the first one in organic chemistry for chem. majors. Bob was tall and heavily-muscled and looked like he played football for the varsity. While others were taking notes, he just sat, eyes forward. I asked him at the end of lecture whether the material was clear to him and what was his major. He said he was pre-med. I discovered he was a star player on the football team and with that and his behavior of not taking notes, wondered how long he’d last. When the first mid-term exams were returned, his score was an even 100% (the class average was 57%). I could not find an undiscovered error anywhere on the exam. I congratulated him after class and asked him how he did it. He said, “I just have a good memory.” He had read the text — Cram and Hammond’s big red book — from cover to cover before the course started and had worked all the exercises. He could quote from any part of the book and provide explanations for any problems I could give him. He had a near-eidetic memory, but also (clearly) a fine mind. His GPA at that time was 4.0, of course. I gladly wrote a letter of recommendation for his applications to medical schools about a year later. He got a large number of acceptances. Later I found that he had become a surgical specialist with an outstanding reputation.
When I worked in industry, I met a third individual who stands out in my mind. Carl was working mostly as a “gofer” and “a pair of hands.” I needed someone to do routine life-cycle testing on some new polymers my research team and I had developed. I went to Personnel and settled on Carl, based on his work records. Carl soon proved to be a “can-do” addition to my group. On one occasion when a polymer press I had ordered was delayed and the deadline I had promised to meet was getting close. Carl, on his own, read up on polymer presses and actually constructed a small working press. Henry, my top assistant, was a fine chemist but suffered from occasional bouts of an incapacitating illness when he could not work. One time, a synthetic procedure needed to be completed and Henry was out. Carl, who had watched the operations of my staff for several months in his spare moments, read Henry’s notebooks, put together the necessary apparatus and finished the procedure successfully. Obviously, Carl was too good to remain a “gofer” so I had him promoted to Technician and later, before I left the company to return to academia, I had him rated as Junior Engineer. I found out that he had grown up in the “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York City. He was raised by his widowed mother. Neither he nor his siblings got into trouble. All were successful adults (one was a Police Captain). What a great tribute to his Mother!
I cannot finish these reminiscences without mentioning a couple of chemistry problems on which I spent much time and effort without success. The first is the synthesis of percyanoallene, a simple molecule that I believe could yield polymers with unusual electronic properties. I even enlisted the help of a group at DuPont who also never produced it, even caged. Anyone out there want to try it?
The second problem was to understand the harmonic voltage behavior of electrets. During charge-decay, the potential difference passes zero and then increases — as the polarity reverses(!) — to a smaller value and then the charge centers reverse again. This behavior is repeated until the system damps down to zero permanently, much like the behavior of a freely-moving pendulum or a child’s swing. Random thermal movement of aligned dipoles should simply result in decay without the reversability phenomenon. This is a real Puzzle. Any ideas?
(Extracted from October 2006 SCALACS Magazine.)