William N. Lipscomb, 1919-2011

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”.  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.”  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.    The final exam was especially memorable: one question was “Discuss the chemistry of the second series of transition elements.”  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.  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.  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.  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.  Flights of angels for this one, please.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

6 thoughts on “William N. Lipscomb, 1919-2011”

  1. Wonderful. Thank you. Those of us with such experiences understand the value of education on a deeper level, IMHO. Wonderful.

  2. Dear Mr. O’Hare: In the parlance of the mob of yesteryear, that was one swell send-off. A wonderful post which I will use to measure the formal dead tree obits this accomplished man of whom I’d never heard until now.

  3. I was fortunate to hear Dr. Lipscomb give two talks over the years. He was just like that in the seminar room and left the graduate students and postdocs in his audience with the feeling that, yes, this is a good thing to be doing. I think I can count on my digits the number of times this has happened in more than 25 years. Thank you for reminding me, Michael!

  4. The linked obit gives a clue as to why “oneium” and “twoium” were not likely to result in deducted points:

    Despite his prowess, Dr. Lipscomb told his son, James, that he received a C in high school chemistry. His grade, based on just the final exam, demanded that he memorize the first 10 elements of the periodic table, but Dr. Lipscomb could not be bothered by such mundane tasks. “I could just look it up,” he said. “So I didn’t do it.”

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