In my freshman year I took the introductory chemistry course for people who had had some chemistry, and as it happened, that year William Lipscomb took it over from a popular prof who was on sabbatical. His long line of PhDs (three more Nobels, uh-huh) and colleagues will be writing remembrances of his scientific contributions, and the Times obit gives an idea of what an interesting person he was; I crossed his path only three times but still remember him as a very important source of guidance.
The first day of that course, he wandered on stage and said “I haven’t really prepared anything, so I think I’ll just talk about my research; we can get to work on Thursday”.Â There followed a quite demanding session about the spherical trigonometry with which one can infer the molecular structure of boranes by x-ray diffraction.
The next session was significantly less well-attended. Lipscomb looked around and said, “Well, I guess that cleared out some of the dead wood” and launched into what may be the best conventional (lecture/section/lab) course I ever took. He continued “I ordered the textbook from last year, so if you want to know what colors things turn when you mix them together you can look in it. But we’ll be using Pauling’s College Chemistry – be sure you don’t get General Chemistry, it’s too easy.”Â Through the semester, Lipscomb went through the periodic table adding electrons and orbitals with quantum mechanics to explain how different atoms could attach to each other. Â Â The final exam was especially memorable: one question was “Discuss the chemistry of the second series of transition elements.”Â Panicked, realizing we had never discussed them in class and didn’t even know their names, we looked for the periodic table that had hung above the podium all semester; it was rolled up and the proctor said he had instructions not to display it.Â We realized, though, that even if we had to call them Oneium, Twoium, etc., we knew so much real chemistry that we could make a pretty good stab at how the orbitals would fill up and what kind of compounds they could form: yes, an exam can be a learning experience. I distinctly recall a chorus of “Oh, yeah!” sounds popping up around the room, like frogs announcing themselves around a pond on a summer evening.
When I accidentally found out what chemists actually do for a living more than a year later, and how different it was from learning chemistry, where you encounter a great new reaction every week, I went to his office hours for some sort of reassurance that it would be OK to start on another career path.Â I got it in just the right reassuring and encouraging tone; it was clear that he knew there was a lot more to life than what he liked to do every day, and he showed real interest in my various uninformed speculations.Â I crossed his path once more, decades later and well after he retired, when I wrote to him about how much I had learned about teaching from him in that first year and thanking him for it, and got a long, funny, thoughtful, gracious reply.
Profs like Lipscomb justify the academic enterprise in the face of its myriad discontents.Â Flights of angels for this one, please.