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Interview with Nobel Laureate Rudolph Marcus(1)
2007-03-19 18:04:23 [ Big Normal Small ]  Zong Xing   Comment
  If you want to do something, try it
   ------Interview with Nobel Laureate Rudolph Marcus

  Xing Talk is a new column runs regularly by Xing Zong, a Chinese graduate student at Duke University. Xing is right now pursuing a Ph.D. degree in physics, but writing and interacting with people is his lifelong passion. He contributes to regularly with his interesting interviews of Presidents in U.S. top universities, Nobel Laureates and business school deans. As Xing said, “my biggest discovery after arriving in U.S. was that my first name “Xing” had a nice interpretation of the on-road sign crossing. Indeed, I stand at the cross road of two different cultures and eager to connect Uncle Sam and Red Dragon.” Recently Xing held an exclusive interview with Prof. Rudolph Marcus, Nobel laureate in Chemistry.

  About Prof. Rudolph Marcus,
  Dr. Rudolph Marcus was born on July 21, 1923 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Educated at McGill University, he worked at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (from 1951), the University of Illinois (from 1964), and the California Institute of Technology (from 1978). He is a leader in the field of electron transfer redox reactions, beginning in the 1950s and '60s, finding that subtle changes in the molecular structures of the reactants and the solvent molecules around them influence the ability of electrons to move from one molecule to another. He also discovered the parabolic relationship between the driving force of an electron-transfer reaction and the reaction's rate. His work, which has shed light on fundamental phenomena such as photosynthesis, cell metabolism, and simple corrosion, won him a 1992 Nobel Prize.

  Xing Zong: Dr. Marcus, your Alma Mater McGill University is known as Canada’s Harvard. How was your college education there?

  Marcus: In my second to fourth years as an undergraduate student, there were only chemistry, physics and mathematics courses. I suspect that’s inherited from the British system. Maybe it is very different now, perhaps it’s more American.

  I had a wide variety of chemistry courses. When I was in graduate school I took a lot of Math courses. I loved Math and that helped me later in the theoretical work. When I was a Ph.D. student, there were no theoretical chemists in Canada, so I did experiments. The educational training there was good.

  After receiving my Ph.D., I went to the National Research Council in Ottawa. There was a new program in 1946 in which they were looking for postdocs. I later became dissatisfied because I wasn’t using the mathematics I had learned. So, another postdoc and I formed a two-man seminar to study journal articles in theoretical chemistry. I began to think that perhaps I should try theory. That was the beginning of my career in theory.

  Xing Zong: Your background—exposure to both theoretical chemistry and experimental chemistry is quite unique. As a rocket scientist myself, I understand this switch must be difficult. How long was that transition period? On the official Nobel Prize website, you used the word “risky” to describe the transition. Were you scared at that time?

  Marcus: The transition period was about 10 years. I became a faculty member in 1951, but didn’t have enough confidence to do only theory, so I also did experiments, until about 1962. It was indeed a big risk because I didn’t have that much background in theory, but I think I was too young to be scared.

  Xing Zong: Let me back a step. What motivated you to take this bold shift in your career?

  Marcus: I was so dissatisfied that I wasn’t able to use much mathematics in experiments. I felt if I could get a position as a postdoc in theory, it would be so attractive. That desire overwhelmed many feelings, such as “maybe I won’t make it”. I am not sure even if I thought in those terms such as “scary”.
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