Conference to honor three esteemed scholars, plunge into chemical physics

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

R. Stephen Berry, Joshua Jortner and Stuart Rice will delve into deep and difficult scientific questions at a Sept. 13-15 conference in their honor at the University of Chicago’s Kent Chemical Laboratory building. The “240 Conference” will mark the 80th birthdays of UChicago scholars Berry, the James Franck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry; Jortner, professor emeritus of chemistry at Tel Aviv University; and Rice, the Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry.

More than 120 of their closest colleagues are expected to attend the conference, which will be devoted to important problems in chemical physics, the field that overlaps chemistry and physics, and related scientific areas.

The three chemists aim to fill “‘gaps in ignorance’ relating to science’s great challenges,” said Jortner, with a nod to the noted mathematician David Hilbert, who once said of a colleague: “There are some gaps in his ignorance.”

The conference agenda emphasizes gaps in the scientific understanding of central themes relating to complexity and its emergence, dynamics under extreme conditions, the origins of life, and the chemical universe. Solutions to fundamental open questions related to these topics “will stimulate marked scientific progress,” Jortner said.

All three chemists have forged distinguished careers and still maintain active research programs. Rice is a recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor. Berry was one of the first two chemists to become a MacArthur Fellow. Like Rice, Berry is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Rice, like Jortner, has received the Wolf Prize in chemistry. Jortner also has served as science advisor to three Israeli prime ministers; as president of the Israel National Academy of Sciences and Humanities; and is a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society.

When they turned 70 they organized three meetings. “I’m the oldest, so the first meeting Stuart and Josh organized for my birthday,” Berry said. “The second meeting Joshua and I organized for Stuart’s birthday, and the third meeting Stuart and I organized for Joshua’s birthday. But this time we decided we only wanted to have one meeting.”

They wanted to hold a scientific conference, not one based upon what they had done, Rice said, “but rather looking at the major issues that face science in general, but especially chemical physics.”

When Berry met Rice

Berry and Rice met at Harvard University in September 1952 while standing in line to register for graduate studies in chemistry, and immediately became friends. They chose very different lines of study for their doctoral work, but later collaborated together with Harvard’s William Klemperer to study alkali halide molecules.

As graduate students, Berry, Rice, Klemperer and Dudley Herschbach (who shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry), would have long, intense discussions about what they saw as the big, challenging problems of the future. “Those discussions definitely had a strong influence on what all four of us did in the subsequent years,” Berry said. “The same spirit that motivated those discussions is what led us to make ‘240’ a meeting focused on open questions, rather than on past achievements.”

Rice completed his doctorate in 1955, joining the UChicago faculty in 1957 after a two-year stint as a junior fellow of Harvard’s Society of Fellows. Berry completed his doctorate in 1956, becoming an instructor at the University of Michigan and an assistant professor at Yale University before accepting an appointment at UChicago in 1964 with encouragement and introductions from Rice.

Jortner arrived at UChicago in late 1962 as a postdoctoral research associate in Rice’s laboratory.

“That’s a funny way of putting it, because he was so accomplished, so advanced that he became an instant colleague, although formally speaking he was a postdoc,” Rice said.

Brokering the Rice-Jortner connection was Gabriel Stein of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Stein had met Rice in 1961 in Cambridge, England, where the latter had been visiting as a Guggenheim Fellow. Jortner had completed his PhD under Stein’s supervision in 1960.

Jortner returned to Israel after completing his postdoctoral appointment at UChicago in 1964. He maintained formal ties to the University until 1972, however, first as a visiting associate professor in chemistry, then as a part-time professor in chemistry.

Berry and Rice both are members of UChicago’s James Franck Institute, as was Jortner when he was affiliated with the University. “It was one of the first institutes in the world that stood for high-quality, interdisciplinary science,” Jortner said. “What was, and still is remarkable about the University of Chicago, is the intellectual environment, the high-quality scientific endeavor and the intense focus on excellence.”

When Jortner met berry

Mutual research interests had led Jortner and Berry to begin corresponding in early 1962. They first met the following year when Berry was visiting from Yale University, where he was then an assistant professor in chemistry.

“Joshua and I got into some lively discussions that led to our first co-authored publication, even before I arrived at Chicago,” Berry said. Although Jortner returned to Tel Aviv just before Berry moved to UChicago as a new faculty member, they continued to communicate and collaborate.

It was a fortunate confluence that the three chemists met early in their careers and have continued to interact and collaborate over the years. “We became friends and colleagues and traded ideas back and forth. It’s just been a wonderful situation,” Rice said.

Jortner expressed similar sentiments. “I am looking forward to many new explorations with them into the mysteries that science can unravel,” Jortner said.