musings on music and life

March 8, 2017

Rest in Peace, Prof. Olah

Filed under: Chemistry — sankirnam @ 11:54 pm

I just heard the news today that Prof. George A. Olah had passed away.

This affects me personally, as I did my PhD in his laboratories, and was the last student to actually do research in superacid chemistry and carbocations, which is what Prof. Olah received the Nobel Prize for.

Prof. Olah was truly a giant not just in Physical Organic Chemistry, or Organic Chemistry, but Chemistry in general. I don’t need to rehash what has already been inscribed in the annals of scientific history – Prof. Olah has written several autobiographical accounts of his life and his research career, and these do a much better job at explaining things than I ever could.

What I can say is that Prof. Olah’s approach to science was extremely rigorous, thanks to the education he received in Hungary prior to the Communist revolution. This rigor was carried into everything he studied in Organic Chemistry. Prof. Olah was also extremely fearless when it came to exploring new ideas in chemistry, and this quality stuck with him the rest of his life. He started his career off in a makeshift laboratory (which was pieced together in a balcony) in the Technical Institute in Budapest, where, much to the disapproval of his PhD advisor, he did work in fluorine chemistry, Friedel-Crafts chemistry, and superacid chemistry, the subjects that would be a recurring theme in his life.

Lately, there’s been a trend in popular media, whether it’s books, blogs, or news media, to pit foxes and hedgehogs against each other. Foxes are people who have a very shallow understanding of lots of topics, whereas hedgehogs are said to be people who have a deep understanding of one topic. All of these sources tout the superiority of foxes, claiming that they make better predictions due to the fact that they don’t get caught up on one idea. Ever since I first read about this in Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, I was unconvinced, because I knew scientists who worked on one (or a few) big ideas for their entire careers. Prof. Olah was one such individual, and he truly made the case for the superiority of hedgehogs!

Prof. Olah’s modus operandi was to throw all his effort in one area until he was satisfied that he had learned as much as he could there. He would then collect all his manuscripts and write a large review either as an independent review article or as a book, and then move on to the next topic. In this fashion, he covered a large swath of chemistry, from synthetic methodologies, to carbocation chemistry, Friedel-Crafts chemistry, onium ions, nitration, and methanol. If you want to learn more about these topics, I wrote about them briefly here.

Prof. Olah was extremely organized and methodical in his approach to science, and this is revealed in his publications, the majority of which are in various series. He has a series of 300+ papers on “Stable carbocations”, 60+ papers on “Friedel-Crafts chemistry”, 200+ papers on “Synthetic methods and reactions”, and so on. Each of these papers is a gem. Prof. Olah’s command over English is impeccable, and the papers are all carefully written to make the science not just understandable but accessible. Prof. Olah also had the good fortune to get married to a fellow chemist, Judith Olah, and they published several papers in Friedel-Crafts chemistry together.

Prof. Olah was one of the few chemists to get a reagent named after himself – Olah’s reagent is a mixture of HF and pyridine that is much easier to handle than pure HF itself, since it is a liquid at room temperature. Prof. Olah also came up with the use of SO2ClF as a cosolvent for superacids, as well as discovering that the mixture of HSO3F and SbF5 could form an extremely powerful liquid superacid system convenient for studying carbocations. The oft-repeated story of how that mixture came to be called “Magic Acid” is something that doesn’t need to be told again here.

There are a few things that set Prof. Olah apart from other chemists, not just from his generation, but also the current generation. The first is that he was able to do Nobel-Prize winning work while not being at a top university (e.g. Harvard/Stanford/Caltech/MIT/Berkeley etc.)! This was always a matter of pride for him, and really does go to show the quality of his ideas and his thinking. The second was his concern to do research that was truly practical and addressed the problems facing humanity today, such as climate change and energy storage. It was due to this concern that he spent the last 2 decades focused solely on a pet idea – The “Methanol Economy”. He also developed the process of methanol “bi-reforming”, which is based on existing Fischer-Tropsch chemistry, in order to make it practical.

Of course, success always breeds contempt, and unfortunately Prof. Olah did have enemies in his lifetime. Plenty of older chemists will remember the scientific rivalry (bordering on animosity) between Prof. H. C. Brown and Prof. Saul Winstein, and after Prof. Winstein suddenly passed away in 1969, Prof. Olah took his place. Another injustice is that Prof. Olah was never invited to give a lecture at Caltech or Harvard University. This is unconscionable, given his scientific accomplishments in chemistry!

I am proud to belong to the scientific family of Prof. Olah (which extends back to Emil Fischer), and grateful to have had the opportunity to learn and practice organic chemistry in his laboratories at the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, USC.

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My copy of Superacid Chemistry…

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…signed by all the authors, including Prof. Olah!

EDIT (3/9/2017): USC has issued a press release in memory of Prof. Olah, which is well-written and very detailed.

2nd EDIT (3/14/2017): C&EN has written an article in memory of Prof. Olah, and some of his former students and colleagues have commented online.

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