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C&EN Special Issue: 85th Anniversary Of The Priestley Medal - Volume 86, Number 14, April 7, 2008

1989: George C. Pimentel (1922–1989)

“He went to the ballpark every day, and he let them know he came to play.” So states the self-chosen epitaph of George C. Pimentel, who played in the field of chemistry to great results. He was highly regarded for his creativity and insight and known for his energy and enthusiasm. Bringing these qualities to bear on his research and interactions with others, Pimentel is recognized not only for his scientific work but also as a keen leader, teacher, and mentor.

A lifelong Californian, Pimentel was born in the state’s Central Valley in 1922 and grew up during the depression in a poor section of Los Angeles. He worked his way through college, receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1943. He then moved to UC Berkeley where he worked on the Manhattan Project. In 1944, when he is said to have grasped the full implications of the project’s aims, Pimentel enlisted in the Navy to do his part to hasten the war’s end.

After the war, Pimentel played a role in establishing the Office of Naval Research, and returned to UC Berkeley for graduate work under Kenneth S. Pitzer (1969 Priestley Medalist). Completing a Ph.D. in 1949, he joined the UC Berkeley faculty and remained a member until his death in 1989. In the meantime, he became a leader in science policy. Between 1977 and 1980, Pimentel served as deputy director of the National Science Foundation. He later organized and edited the 1985 National Academy of Sciences “Opportunities in Chemistry,” or the so-called “Pimentel Report.”

He also helped create National Chemistry Day, later to become National Chemistry Week, when he was American Chemical Society president in 1986. His final lecture was the Priestley Medal address in 1989, and he used the opportunity to encourage the scientific community to do its part in promoting the benefits of science and technology. While at NSF, he said in the address, “I became acutely aware of the mismatch between the rich potentialities of chemistry today and the tarnished public image carried by chemicals and the chemical industry.

“In view of such potentialities and promise, one might expect that chemistry would be entering a golden era of benefit to human society. However, we find public attitudes pointing us down a road orthogonal to this optimistic prospect—one that might deny us this golden era,” he said. He went on to call upon scientists to begin a campaign of public education. “This is a time for action. We are the individuals who can and must lead this action campaign. It is a responsibility we cannot sidestep. Please join in. Help us get back on the right road.”

Pimentel’s desire for success was evident in everything he did, ranging from supporting science education to playing sports to his ground-breaking experimental work. During his career, he developed methods of vibrational spectroscopy to study molecular bonding and chemical reactivity. These methods included the matrix isolation technique to trap free radicals and other reactive species to study their roles in chemical reactions. The approach was used to understand hydrogen-bonding and infrared photochemistry. He also studied fast reactions, discovering the means to convert chemical energy into laser light. His lab succeeded in producing the first chemical lasers and studied nearly 100 different reactions that yielded chemical lasers.

In 1967, at age 45, Pimentel applied to be a scientist-astronaut. In its evaluation of a thousand candidates who had undergone physical and intellectual tests, the National Academy of Sciences ranked him first. But a minor abnormality in one of his retinas would prevent his joining the program. Undeterred, he instead went about building an infrared spectrometer from scratch that would travel to Mars on Mariner missions to analyze the chemical constituents of the planet’s atmosphere and surface. Even from afar, he had come to play.—Ann Thayer

More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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More On This Topic

  • 85th Anniversary of the Priestley Medal
  • Introduction
  • C&EN celebrates the American Chemical Society's highest honor
  • Priestley's Medals
  • The medals of the minister-scientist who discovered oxygen attest to his fame and infamy
  • The Priestley Medalists, 1923-2008
  • View a complete list of award recipients
  • Living History
  • These 12 Priestley Medal winners reflect on winning ACS's most coveted award