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UF’s Nobel Prize Winning Connections

This article was originally printed in the November 2005 issue of CLASnotes.

Robert H. Grubbs Robert H Grubbs

Robert H. Grubbs, who earned degrees in chemistry from UF, has received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. An organic chemist whose work on catalysis has led to a wide variety of applications in medicine and industry, Grubbs is currently the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He shares the award with Yves Chauvin, a professor at the Institut Français du Pétrole in Rueil-Malmaison, France, and Richard Schrock, a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The winners will split a $1.3 million prize, which will be presented in December at a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.

The trio was cited specifically for “the development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis.” Metathesis is an organic reaction in which chemists selectively strip out certain atoms in a compound and replace them with atoms that were previously part of another compound. The end result is a custom-built molecule that has specialized properties, which can lead to better drugs for the treatment of disease or better electrical conducting properties for specialized plastics, for example.

In particular, Grubbs has worked on olefin metathesis. Prior to his work, metathesis was poorly understood and of limited value to scientists. Grubbs developed powerful new catalysts for metathesis that enabled custom synthesis of valuable molecules, such as pharmaceuticals and new polymers with novel materials properties.

Grubbs earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from UF in 1963 and 1965, respectively. After completing his PhD in chemistry at Columbia University, he spent a year at Stanford University as a postdoctoral fellow and then joined the Michigan State University faculty in 1969. He has taught at Caltech since 1978.

As a UF student working in an animal nutrition lab, Grubbs was convinced by a friend to work with Chemistry Professor Merle Battiste. To Grubbs’ surprise, he enjoyed working in a chemistry lab. “I liked the mechanical aspects of working in the lab and the combination of physical and intellectual challenges,” he says. Battiste, who is now a professor emeritus of chemistry, became Grubbs’ advisor.

The two will have the chance to see each other again soon. Grubbs received 15 tickets to the Nobel awards dinner in Stockholm, and Battiste will be among his guests.

Grubbs has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1989, and was the 2000 recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Medal. He is the second UF graduate to receive a Nobel Prize. The first was Marshall Nirenberg, who earned a bachelor’s degree from UF in 1948 and a master’s degree in zoology in 1952.

In 1968 Nirenberg was honored with the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his investigations with the National Institutes of Health that led to the demonstration that messenger RNA (ribonucleic acid) is required for protein synthesis and can be used to decipher various aspects of the genetic code.

Another UF connection to a Nobel Prize this year is the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics, partially awarded to Roy Glauber, the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard University “for his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence.”

UF Physics and Mathematics Professor John Klauder helped to work out the mathematical theory of this phenomenon.

Part of the citation reads: “The mathematical formalism of quantized fields was developed in parallel with Glauber’s work on their applications. E.C.G. Sudarshan drew attention to the use of coherent state representations for the approach to classical physics; at this point he refers to Glauber’s work. Together with J.R. Klauder he proceeded to develop the mathematical formalism of Quantum Optics; their approach is presented in their textbook. After the initial contributions, many authors applied Glauber’s results to the rapidly evolving experimental situation in optical physics, thus creating the field today called ‘Quantum Optics’.”

The book by Klauder and Sudarshan titled Fundamentals of Quantum Optics is considered a classic in the field and was Originally published in 1968. It will soon be reprinted by Dover Press.

Klauder has known Glauber for many years. “We have met at many conferences over the years,” says Klauder, who received his PhD from Princeton University in 1959. “Since Glauber’s original work was done more than 40 years ago, I must admit I was surprised that he received the award now. Naturally, I am pleased for him and for the recognition that this award brings to the field of quantum optics.”

— Allyson A. Beutke

Photo Courtesy of California Institute of Technology

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