Friday, April 15, 2011

Deceased--William N. Lipscomb Jr.

William N. Lipscomb Jr.
December 9th, 1919 to April 14th, 2011

"William N. Lipscomb dies at 91; won Nobel Prize in chemistry"

The scientist was honored for the first studies to explain the chemistry of boron, in particular the combinations of boron and hydrogen called boranes.


Thomas H. Maugh II

April 16th, 2011

Los Angeles Times

William N. Lipscomb, who received the 1976 Nobel Prize in chemistry for studies that were the first to explain the chemistry of the element boron and, in particular, those exotic combinations of boron and hydrogen called boranes, has died. He was 91.

Lipscomb died Thursday at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., from pneumonia and other complications of a fall he suffered several weeks earlier, his family said.

"The dominant personal characteristics of Professor Lipscomb have been an unfailing scientific imagination, a refusal to accept the limitations imposed by current dogma, an ability to perceive relationships often missed by others, and above all, a delight in the intellectual challenge of uncovering scientific truth," wrote his former student, Russell N. Grimes of the University of Virginia, in an appreciation in the journal Science.

When Lipscomb began his studies in the 1940s, boron was considered a relatively uninteresting atom. Although it resides right next to carbon on the periodic table of the elements, researchers knew of few natural compounds containing it and professed little interest in it. Lipscomb was puzzled by a lecture of his mentor, Linus Pauling, in which Pauling proposed a theory of chemical bonding for boron that did not seem correct. Lipscomb set out to prove him wrong.

Boron belongs to a family of atoms that researchers call electron-deficient — that is, they don't have enough free electrons to form the same types of bonds as carbon does. But no one could deduce how they did bond.

Moreover, most boron-containing compounds that could be produced in the laboratory, such as the boranes, were highly unstable, even explosive at room temperatures.

Lipscomb pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography to study the structures of boranes at low temperatures, something that had not been achieved before. In 1951, he made his first key discovery. In the conventional mode of bonding, such as in hydrocarbons, each hydrogen atom shares two electrons with the carbon atom it is joined to.

In boranes, however, two boron atoms are linked together by a hydrogen atom sitting between them, the three atoms sharing two electrons. The structures, he wrote, "looked like a geometer's dream." Three boron atoms could be linked in the same fashion.

In his 1954 paper reporting the results, Lipscomb and his co-workers Bryce Crawford Jr. and W. H. Eberhardt wrote, "We have even ventured a few predictions, knowing that if we must join the ranks of boron hydride predictors later proved wrong, we shall be in the best of company." They were not proved wrong.

He and his colleagues went on to elucidate the chemistry of boron compounds, using sophisticated quantum mechanical calculations to describe the structure of molecules and to predict how they would react chemically. His work led to the synthesis of a variety of boron-containing compounds that have myriad uses, especially in the synthesis of complicated organic molecules that do not contain it. Boron compounds are also used for reinforcing lightweight structural materials.

In later years, he worked on a variety of biochemical problems, particularly the determination of the structures of proteins.

William Nunn Lipscomb Jr., affectionately called "Colonel" by his friends because of his Kentucky heritage, was born Dec. 9, 1919, in Cleveland, but the family moved to Lexington, Ky., the following year. His father was a prosperous physician who lost his career and livelihood when young William's sister Helen contracted polio at age 17. No one would take their child to a doctor from the house of polio.

Interested in chemistry at an early age, Lipscomb assembled a laboratory in his bedroom, making homemade fireworks, stink bombs and a host of other materials. Upon his graduation from high school, he donated the lab equipment to the school, more than doubling the campus' equipment.

Because of the family's reduced circumstances, he attended the inexpensive University of Kentucky on a clarinet scholarship. He graduated in 1941 and hitchhiked to Los Angeles to enroll in graduate school in physics at Caltech, switching to physical chemistry after a year.

During the war years, he worked for the War Department's Office of Scientific Research and Development during the day and on his doctoral research at night. Some of that research involved analyzing the size of smoke particles with the hope that defense forces "could cloud up Los Angeles so the Japanese could not find it to bomb it." He also studied the burning rates of nitroglycerine-nitrocellulose propellants.

His doctoral thesis was locked in a safe, and nobody could find it for years because the war-related projects were classified.

Graduating in 1946, he taught at the University of Minnesota until he moved to Harvard University in 1959, spending the rest of his career there.

A skilled clarinetist who often played in chamber music groups, Lipscomb was also a tennis enthusiast and practical joker. At mealtimes, he thought it funny to steal butter off other people's butter knives and was known to remove the fruit from walnuts and glue the shells back together before offering them to guests.

Lipscomb and his first wife, the former Mary Adele Sargent, divorced in 1983. She died in 2007. He is survived by his second wife, the former Jean Evans, whom he married in 1983; two daughters, Dorothy Wright of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Jenna Lipscomb of Cambridge, Mass.; a son, James, of Yorktown Heights, N.Y.; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

"William N. Lipscomb Jr., Nobel Prize-Winning Chemist, Dies at 91"


Glenn Rifkin

April 15th, 2011

The New York Times

William N. Lipscomb Jr., a Harvard chemistry professor who won a Nobel Prize in 1976 for his research on the structure of molecules and on chemical bonding, died on Thursday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 91.

His death was announced by his son, James. Dr. Lipscomb was a Cambridge resident.

A protégé of the two-time Nobel laureate Linus C. Pauling, Dr. Lipscomb was a pioneering researcher whose work on the chemical structure of boranes — compounds of boron and hydrogen — continued Dr. Pauling’s work at the California Institute of Technology in the 1940s.

In terms of practical applications, boron compounds have shown some promise in radiation therapy for treating brain tumors. But mainly the work significantly advanced basic knowledge of the way atoms bond together.

As Dr. Lipscomb said: “For me, the creative process, first of all, requires a good nine hours of sleep a night. Second, it must not be pushed by the need to produce practical applications.”

Dr. Lipscomb’s research involved developing X-ray diffraction techniques, usually used as a tool in physics, that allowed him to map the connection of the atoms in an important but puzzling group of compounds called boron hydrides. The electronic structure turned out to be not simple linear molecules but rather complex three-dimensional objects. Dr. Lipscomb was able to explain these structures for the first time.

Like Dr. Pauling, who won the Nobel in chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962, Dr. Lipscomb was an admired teacher at Harvard, where he was a faculty member from 1959 until his retirement in 1990. Three of his doctoral students went on to win Nobel Prizes in chemistry.

“He was always accessible; the door to his office was always open,” said Roald Hoffmann, professor emeritus of chemistry at Cornell University and one of Dr. Lipscomb’s Nobel protégés in 1981. He added, “He created a beautiful and coherent body of work on an important group of molecules that had eluded simple description.”

A man of multiple talents known for his wry sense of humor and his signature string tie, Dr. Lipscomb was a classical clarinetist who performed in chamber groups and had been principal clarinetist with the Pasadena Civic Orchestra and the Minneapolis Civic Orchestra.

He was not above dropping comical elements into his scientific publications. In one 1972 paper, he noted: “We admittedly made this observation with the benefit of hindsight. This science is known as retrospectroscopy.”

William Nunn Lipscomb Jr. was born on Dec. 9, 1919, in Cleveland. When he was a year old, his family moved to Lexington, Ky. One of his early doctoral students gave him his nickname, Colonel, for his Kentucky roots. In 1973, the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels made him a member.

Receiving the proverbial chemistry set as a birthday gift at age 11, Dr. Lipscomb became obsessed with science. He later recalled creating “evil smells” using hydrogen sulfide to drive his two sisters out of his room and nearly blowing up the house while concocting gunpowder for homemade fireworks.

Despite his prowess, Dr. Lipscomb told his son, James, that he received a C in high school chemistry. His grade, based on just the final exam, demanded that he memorize the first 10 elements of the periodic table, but Dr. Lipscomb could not be bothered by such mundane tasks. “I could just look it up,” he said. “So I didn’t do it.”

Dr. Lipscomb attended the University of Kentucky on a music scholarship but graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1941. He went on to work with Dr. Pauling and earned his doctorate in chemistry at Caltech in 1946. He joined Harvard after 13 years at the University of Minnesota. From 1982 to 1990 he was on the board of directors of Dow Chemical.

Besides his son, James, and a daughter, Dorothy, from his marriage to the former Mary Adele Sargent, Dr. Lipscomb is survived by his second wife, Jean Evans; their daughter, Jenna; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

In his later years, Dr. Lipscomb was a regular participant in the annual Ig Nobel Prize awards in Cambridge, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research. “We have a bunch of Nobel Prize winners who hand out our prizes,” said Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobels. “Bill ended up as our grand star. He played clarinet at the beginning and end of each show, and he narrated funny videos we post on our Web site. He just had great timing.”

Dr. Lipscomb may also be the only Nobel laureate featured in a YouTube video offering instructions on how to tie a string tie.

Boron vs carbon

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