Tag Archives: Princeton

Paul Schleyer (1930 – 2014) R. I. P.

This is a guest post by Peter J. Reilly, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Iowa State University, fellow Schleyer undergraduate advisee Princeton 1958 – 1960, friend, and all around good guy.

I’ll follow with my own reminiscences in another post. Obits tend to be polished and bland, ‘speak no evil of the dead’ and all that, but Peter captures the flavor of what it was actually like to be Paul’s advisee and exposed to his formidable presence.

“Following are my thoughts on our undergraduate chemistry advisor at Princeton, Paul von Ragué Schleyer, who died on November 21 of this year at 84.

Paul was an amazingly prolific chemist. He started publishing in 1956, soon after he arrived at Princeton from receiving a Ph.D. at Harvard, where he studied from 1951 to 1954 after earning an A.B. from Princeton. He was still publishing at the time of his death. In fact, he had promised to deliver a book chapter over this Thanksgiving weekend. Over his latter years at Princeton, in the early 1970’s, his annual production of papers averaged the middle 20’s. He kept up the same pace at Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany from 1976 to 1992. From 1993 to 1997, when he had appointments at both Erlangen-Nürnberg and the University of Georgia, he was in the 40’s. When fully at Georgia, after 1997, he gradually slacked off, publishing only 16 papers this year. Altogether he had 1277 publications, when a really productive chemist with ready access to students and postdoctoral fellows hopes to have 200–250 in a full career.

Another way to consider Paul’s productivity is by how often his work had been cited (partly by his own later papers but mainly by the papers of others). A 1981–1997 survey reported that he was the third most cited chemist in the world. Althogether his works were cited over 75,000 times. His h-index is 126 in the Thomson Reuters Web of Science database, meaning that he had 126 publications that were cited at least 126 times, an astounding number.

I first met Paul in the fall of 1958, two years after I arrived at Princeton. I needed to find someone to supervise my junior paper, a ritual common to all Princeton undergraduates doing A.B. degrees. I had originally approached Edward Taylor, a somewhat older chemistry professor, but when I told him that I was somewhat interested in becoming a chemical engineer, he directed me to Paul. Paul was 28 at the time, but he seemed older to me (I supposed all professors did). He was tall, with dark black hair combed to the side over his forehead. He had a scar on his cheek and talked very precisely.

My father met him once and came away asking if he had been a German U-boat captain during WWII.

I must say that I spent a sizable part of the next two years being terrified of Paul. He had a laboratory in the second floor of the southwest corner of Frick Chemical Laboratory. The benches were full of glassware, to the point where it seemed hard to do any research. However, the item that spooked me the most was a cauldron full of boiling black liquid, supposedly mainly nitric acid, in which dirty glassware was submerged to be cleaned.

Paul gave me a project to research the incidence and properties of the benzyne intermediate, a short-lived benzene ring with a triple bond. This was my first exposure to research beyond short papers for classes, and I suppose that I did well enough for him to invite me to do a senior thesis with him. The topic was to determine the mechanism by which an obscure organic chemical rearranged itself. The title of the thesis that came from a year’s dogged effort was “A Study of the Cleavage Products of 2,5-Dimethyltetrahydropyran-2-Methanol”, but what I mainly made was black goop. Paul’s written comments to me started with the statement that he was sorry that the problem was so intractable, but at least he liked my writeup. I still have the thesis (and the junior paper). Back in 2007 I was contacted by the Princeton University Library, which had lost its copy. They asked if I could send them mine so that they could microfilm it, which of course I did.

I remember that at least four of us chemistry majors spent much of our senior years in a very large and empty laboratory working on our theses under Paul’s direction. I must say that the various chemicals that I worked on smelled a lot better than the ones that you dealt with. I used to take weekend dates up to the laboratory to show them where I worked, and I would open one of your very small tubules, I think containing butyl mercaptan. Its smell still permeated the room on Mondays. (Editor’s note — people used to look at their shoes when I walked into the eating club after working with n-Bu-SH or similar compounds).

Despite my lack of success on my thesis, I learned from it how to do research. My chemical engineering major professor at the University of Pennsylvania was hard to contact, so much of my doctoral dissertation was done without much supervision. Between the two experiences, I had a good foundation for my 46 years of being a chemical engineering professor, six at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and 40 at Iowa State University after four years at DuPont in southern New Jersey.

I only saw Paul four times after leaving Princeton. The first was when I returned there for a short visit. The second time was at my 25th Princeton reunion, when one of his daughters was graduating. A third time was when he visited the Iowa State chemistry department to present a prestigious lecture. The fourth and last time was in 2005 when I visited the University of Georgia for a meeting. Paul spent about 30 minutes telling me about his latest research, of which I understood very little.

I will close with a little story. When I told Paul during my senior year that I wanted to go to graduate school in chemical engineering, he asked why I wanted to become a pipe-fitter. Probably because of my chemistry background at Princeton, my research was always chemistry- and biology-based, first in fermentations at Penn and Nebraska (with a detour to chloro- and fluorocarbons at DuPont), and then in enzymes and carbohydrates at Iowa State. I moved more and more into computation late in my career, and when Paul visited around 2002 I told him that I would be sending a manuscript to the Journal of Computational Chemistry, which he and Lou Allinger at Georgia had founded and were still editing. Being Paul, he immediately said in his deep voice that it had better be good. As it turned out, it sailed through the review process with hardly a blip, and I followed it up with a second manuscript a few years later.

So, we were fortunate to have Paul as a mentor during our formative years. He certainly wasn’t the sweetest guy, but he was brilliant, and hopefully a very small part of his brilliance rubbed off on us.”

Peter J. Reilly


The peculiar blindness of the highly intelligent

This is not a scientific post. While at Graduate Alumni day last April at Harvard, I listened to the main speaker go on and on about how irrational (translation: stupid) people were when it came to risk, particularly that of flying after 9/11. In terms of miles traversed, flying is far safer than driving. The speaker was Louise Richardson
PhD ’89, government, presently Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews. Her topic was “Terrorism: what have we learned?”

Here’s who she is and what she’s done. In the years after 9/11, in addition to her teaching and management roles, Professor Richardson gave over 300 talks and lectures on terrorism and counter-terrorism to educational and private groups as well as policy makers, the military, intelligence, and business communities. She has testified before the United States Senate and has appeared on CNN, NBC, the BBC, PBS, NPR, Fox and a host of other broadcast outlets. Her work has been featured in numerous international periodicals.

Clearly, she’s listened to. As I sat there I wondered how her advice for society could be any good, given her contempt for the way most of its members think. I’m sure in the several hundred of so listeners there were some adamantly opposed nuclear power. Two years previously we heard professor Daniel Schrag talk on a geologist’s perspective on global warming, saying there was no such thing as ‘clean coal’ and how slowly carbon dioxide is cleared from the atmosphere. Clearly, nuclear power is cleanest mode of energy production, with the lowest risk etc. etc. Why are some highly educated (and presumably intelligent) people against it?

Which brings us to the mind set of Professor Gruber. Amazingly, Howard Dean (a man of the left) had the following to say about Professor Gruber and Obamacare on MSNBC

First Gruber: “The problem is not that Gruber said it– the problem is that he thinks it”

Then ObamaCare “The core problem under the damn law is that it was put together by a bunch of elitists who don’t fundamentally understand the American people. That’s what the problem is”

How could free health care be so unpopular.

The common delusion of the highly intelligent is that since they think so well, everyone should think like them, and if they don’t their behavior and institutions should be directed by their intellectual betters. Nothing much has changed in Cambridge in 54 years. This mindset was just as common then as it is now. You can see how well it’s working.

Well, probably most readers of this blog are highly educated (technically at least), and years away from dealing with the mass of humanity. Most doctors in practice see the full spectrum of the populace, because everyone gets sick.

Here’s what’s out there. Part of the neurologic examination is the mental status examination. One assesses a variety of things — orientation, speech, affect, calculation, memory etc. etc. One part often used to assess higher cognitive function is the ability to abstract. People are asked things like, what’s similar about an apple and an orange, a table and a chair. What’s different about a river and a lake. They can be asked for the meaning of familial proverbs “a stitch in time saves nine, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The point of the mental status is to separate the normal from the abnormal.

I pretty much had to abandon similarities and differences because so many normally functioning people thought extremely concretely. For the apple/orange similarity I’d get back they’re both round, or (worse) one is red the other is orange (not a similarity), or the proverb would be repeated back verbatim. I’d guess that 1/3 of people think this concretely.That table and chair were both furniture or that apples and oranges were both fruit was only the response about 60% of the time. You can either call the 1/3 abnormal (which means you need to redefine normal) or decide that the test is useless for picking up pathology. I chose the latter.

This is why I’ll only interview high school students for my Ivy league alma mater (Princeton). Princeton needs them as much as they need Princeton. They bring a dose of reality to a very cloistered environment.

Hitler’s gifts (and Russia’s gift)

In the summer of 1984 Barack Obama was at Harvard Law, his future wife was a Princeton undergraduate, and Edward Frenkel a 16 year old mathematical prodigy was being examined for admission to Moscow State University. He didn’t get in because he was Jewish. His blow by blow description of the 5 hour exam on pp. 28 – 38 of his book “Love & Math” is as painful to read as it must have been for him to write.

A year earlier the left in Europe had mobilized against the placement of Pershing missiles in Europe by president Reagan, already known there as a crude and witless former actor, but, unfortunately possessed of nuclear weapons. Tens of thousands marched. He had even called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire that year. Leftists the world over were outraged. How unsophisticated to even admit the possibility of evil. Articles such as “Reagan’s image in Europe does not help Allies in deploying American missiles” appeared in the liberal press.

The hatred of America is nothing new for the left.

Reset the clock to ’60 – ’62 when I was a grad student in the Harvard Chemistry department. The best place to meet women was the International house. It had a piano, and a Polish guy who played Chopin better than I did. It had a ping pong table, and another Polish guy who beat me regularly. The zeitgeist at Harvard back then, was that America was rather crude (the Ugly American was quite popular), boorish and unappreciative of the arts, culture etc. etc.

One woman I met was going on and on about this, particularly the condition of the artist in America, and how much better things were in Europe. I brought up Solzhenitzen, and the imprisonment of dissidents over there. Without missing a beat, she replied that this just showed how important the Russian government thought writers and artists were. This was long before Vietnam.

It was definitely a Saul on the road to Damascus moment for me. When the left began spelling America, Amerika in the 60s and 70s, I just ignored it.

Fast forward to this fall, and the Nobels. The 7th Chemistry Nobel bestowed on a department member when I was there went to Marty Karplus. The others were Woodward, Corey, Lipscomb, Gilbert, Hoffman, Bloch. While Bill Lipscomb was a Kentucky gentleman to a T (and a great guy), Hoffman spent World War II hiding out in an attic, his father being in a concentration camp (guess why). Konrad Bloch (who looked as teutonic as they come) also got out of Europe due to his birth. Lastly Karplus got out of Euruope as a child for the same reason. Don Voet, a fellow grad student, whose parents got out of Europe for (I’ll make you guess), used to say that the Universal Scientific Language was — broken English.

So 3/7 of the Harvard Chemistry Nobels are Hitler and Europe’s gifts to America.

Russia, not to be outdone, gave us Frenkel. Harvard recognized his talent, and made him a visiting professorship at age 21, later enrolling him in grad school so he could get a PhD. He’s now a Stanford prof.

So the next time, someone touts the “European model” of anything, ask them about Kosovo, or any of this.

Those of you in training should consider the following. You really won’t know how good what you are getting really is until 50 years or so have passed. That’s not to say Harvard Chemistry’s reputation wasn’t very good back then. Schleyer said ‘now you’re going to Mecca’ when he heard I’d gotten in.

Also to be noted, is that all 7 future Nobelists in the early 60s weren’t resting on their laurels, but actively creating them. The Nobels all came later