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June 9, 2008
Volume 86, Number 23
pp. 46-49

Remembering Henry Eyring

Biography reveals the personal character of a renowned chemist dedicated to family, church, students, and hard work

Reviewed by Jack Simons

In "Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring," the author and subject's grandson, Henry J. Eyring, has collected a vast amount of anecdotal historical information primarily related to his grandfather's personal character and his interactions with friends, family members, and leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon). The vast majority of the book relates to these more personal matters rather than to science. Young chemists who read the book can be inspired by learning about Eyring's approach to science, his dedication to hard work, and the manner in which he related to other people.

Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring, by Henry J. Eyring, Deseret Book Co., 2007, 320 pages, $24.95 hardcover (ISBN: 978-1-59038-854-9)

Professor Eyring was my colleague and friend from 1971 when I joined the University of Utah chemistry faculty until his death in December of 1981. I very much admired him as a scientist and as a human being. Because I am not a member of the Mormon Church, I am not informed enough to relate to many of the stories told in the book about Eyring's interactions with his church's leadership. But I am familiar with Eyring's science, his interactions with his students and colleagues, and his personality. The book offers insight into one of our nation's most renowned chemists of recent decades.

As the book reminds us, Henry Eyring was born on Feb. 20, 1901, in Colonia Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. In 1912, his family left Mexico for the U.S. and settled in Pima, Ariz. After he earned B.S. (1923) and M.S. (1924) degrees in mining and metallurgical engineering at the University of Arizona, he moved to California where he received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry in 1927 from the University of California, Berkeley. After serving as a postdoctoral research associate for a year at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he held a National Research Foundation Fellowship at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin (1930–31). From 1931–46 he was assistant, associate, and full professor of chemistry at Princeton University.

In 1946, Eyring moved to the University of Utah to assume a professorship in chemistry and to serve as the first dean of the graduate school. He held his faculty position at Utah until his death in 1981. During his time on the Utah faculty, Eyring served as president of the American Chemical Society (1963) and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He was awarded the National Medal of Science (1966), ACS's Priestley Medal (1975), Sweden's Berzelius Medal (1979), and the Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry (1980), among many honors. Throughout his academic career, Eyring applied quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics to an extremely broad range of problems in physical chemistry.

In the first part of the book, "Legacy," we read much about Eyring's academic and family history, including how he decided to move away from pursuing a career in mining. It seems that once, while working underground in a mine, a large rock fell on Eyring's boot, causing him considerable pain and injury. Eyring considered the frequency with which he had seen injury and death in mine work and decided then and there that the odds were against him, so he decided to pursue other career avenues. Another bad experience with toxic fumes from a smelter while studying metallurgical engineering eventually moved Eyring to study chemistry. These are examples of Eyring's straightforward practicality.

Other anecdotes in the "Legacy" section reflect what I know of Eyring's personality. One was Eyring's recollection of G. N. Lewis—who was the most significant physical chemist at UC Berkeley when Eyring worked on his Ph.D.—who said, "Physical chemistry is everything that is interesting." I think Eyring believed this, as do I, and it explains why he was not shy about using his skills to attack such diverse problems as molecular electronic energy surfaces, rates of chemical reactions, flames and explosions, and biological processes associated with aging. Eyring liked to figure out how molecules worked, and he would bring any and all tools at his disposal to the task.

Don Christian
"Compulsive little worker" Henry Eyring circa 1951.

Another anecdote in this section concerns Eyring's experiences as a postdoctoral scientist in Germany collaborating with Kaiser Wilhelm Institute's Michael Polanyi to carry out some of the earliest first-principles studies of chemical reaction dynamics for elementary bimolecular gas-phase reactions. Yet another tells about when, after returning from Germany, he joined the faculty at Princeton. He made even greater seminal contributions collaborating with two Princeton professors, senior physical chemist Hugh. S. Taylor and physics star Eugene Wigner. In these efforts, he pioneered calculations of electronic potential energy surfaces for chemical reactions and used the tools of statistical mechanics to develop his absolute rate theory. The latter became the cornerstone of the theory of chemical reactions that all chemists know as transition state theory.

In the short time between 1928 and 1938, Eyring used his broad background in electronic structure theory, reaction dynamics, and statistical mechanics to create the underpinning of important new models such as transition-state theory and the London-Eyring-Polanyi-Sato (LEPS) energy profile and to compute the very first ab initio chemical reaction energy surface (for collinear H + H2). In 1941, Eyring published his seminal book, "The Theory of Rate Processes," with Samuel Glasstone and Keith J. Laidler. And in 1944, the first edition of the widely used textbook "Quantum Chemistry," which Eyring wrote with John Walter and George E. Kimball, appeared. These two books had major impact on physical chemistry and demonstrate how electronic structure theory, reaction rate theory, and statistical mechanics are powerful tools that can be used on a wide range of chemical problems.

I found two errors in this section of the book. On page 21, we read that "the mathematical equations deriving from quantum theory are impossible to solve precisely." These equations can indeed be solved precisely, but their solutions (i.e., wave functions) produce a description of how a molecule's electrons and nuclei are moving that involves the well-known (Heisenberg) uncertainty that cannot be avoided. I am sure this is what the author really meant to say. The second error appears on page 38, where we read about Eyring: "He'd be little remembered now, more than twenty-five years after his death, were it not for two other contributions to the world." We are then told that the two other contributions are Eyring's geniality and his defense of his faith. No doubt, Henry was genial and a great defender of his faith, but I think chemists and chemistry students worldwide still know what he contributed to chemical science. Transition-state theory is in every undergraduate-level textbook, and every practicing chemist knows what it is and how to use it. I believe Eyring's scientific legacy and his name will remain in bright lights for a long time to come.

The "Legacy" section of the book also contains stories about Eyring's generosity and loyalty to his students, his playful nature, and the special role of famous Mormon scientist he had to assume when, in 1946, he moved from Princeton to the University of Utah. Being the most famous scientist living in Utah, where the vast majority of citizens were members of the Mormon Church, Eyring was frequently sought by laymen and church leaders alike, wanting his backing for their points of view on matters such as creation, evolution, and the age of Earth. He was expected to be his church's "unofficial spokesman and advisor on science." But Eyring did not get caught up in science versus religion controversies because he did not see the two as in conflict, which is what he tried to convey to those who asked for his support. For example, the author recounts a story about evolution in which Eyring was asked by a colleague, who was also Mormon, "How do you believe it was?" Eyring replied, "I believe whichever way it turns out to have actually been." In many similar cases, Eyring avoided being drawn into the fray but, instead, provided level-headed guidance to both friends and the leadership of the Mormon Church.

As an example of his loyalty to his students, we read about a rather cantankerous faculty member who was threatening to deny one of Eyring's graduate students approval to graduate. Eyring got a copy of this faculty member's Ph.D. thesis and at the next meeting of the student's thesis review committee, asked, "Why don't we take a look at your thesis and decide what we think of it?" Eyring's student received his diploma without further incident.

The "Heritage" section of the book tells many other stories about Eyring in subsections titled "Love," "Ambition," "Belief," and "Fear." I found the "Ambition" and "Fear" segments to be especially interesting as far as yielding insight into his personality. In the former, we read two stories about ambition: one of Henry at 5 feet 8 inches playing every minute of every game as center on his high school basketball team, which won the area championship. The second story is also from Eyring's childhood. He became annoyed at the judge administering his U.S. citizenship test because the judge would not give him time to show off his knowledge of the Constitution and U.S. government after he had prepared well to do so. Eyring was a "compulsive little worker," according to the book, and, as far as I could see, he remained one throughout his life.

I expect that many readers who knew Eyring will be surprised to find a subsection on fear in the book. I don't think he was really afraid of others, of failure, of life, or death, but he was careful to act in a manner that would ensure protection of his family and his students. The book recalls how he told his sons that he worked harder than required because "if the economy goes to ruin and there's only one chemist in the country with a job, it's going to be me." Later, he is quoted as saying, "Whatever you do, don't lose your health insurance." I often saw this character facet of Eyring's—his not taking things for granted—and it served him well. It is a trait usually accompanied by humility and an absence of self-importance.

The third part of the book, "Paradoxes," contains subsections on "Confidence and Humility," "Discipline and Creativity," and "Freedom and Obedience." All six of these words apply well to Eyring, as many of the stories illustrate. One is a story about a man who tried to engage Eyring in convening a worldwide seminar on evolution to "dismantle Evolution once and for all." With considerable humility and care not to offend the man, Eyring told him, "The important fact for me is that the Lord is directing the affairs in His Universe, not exactly how he does it," and, "He is infinitely wise. I just work here." This response shows Eyring's calm way of addressing hot-button issues and again illustrates his view that science and religion are not really in conflict.

In another story, when asked about why he wrote so many papers, Eyring responded, "I suppose it's some kind of egotism. I like to understand what molecules do, but I also like to tell others what I know." This shows his self-confidence expressed in typical self-effacing Eyring style.

Anyone who was a colleague of Eyring's was keenly aware of his discipline. He worked as hard as or harder than anyone, which is part of the reason he finished his Ph.D. thesis work in two years. Throughout his long academic career, he was always proud that he "taught a full load" and that he held classes six days a week.

Another example in the book about Eyring's discipline is a story about him helping his son, Hal, with a physics homework problem. Eyring said, "Hal, we were working the same kind of problem a week ago. You don't seem to understand it now any better than you did then." Hal admitted he did not, and Eyring replied, "When you walk down the street, when you're in the shower, when you don't have to be thinking about anything else, isn't this what you think about?" Hal admitted it was not physics he thought about in such circumstances. Eyring paused and then said: "Hal, I think you'd better get out of physics. You ought to find something that you love so much that when you don't have to think about anything, that's what you think about."

I have observed this same attitude with Eyring and with others who were truly great at their chosen life work. To be at the top of a profession you love, you need to think about your work whenever your mind has a vacant moment. I think it would help today's students to appreciate this characteristic of Eyring's and other greats and to heed his advice to his son: Find something you love and are good at, and keep it near you and in your mind always.

A few of the stories told by Eyring's grandson strike personal resonances with me. In describing how he did science, Eyring is quoted as saying, "I am more interested in discovering what is over the next rise than in assiduously cultivating the garden close at hand" and characterized himself as having "more interest in the broad aspects of a problem than the delicate nuances." This accurately explains how Eyring approached science, but it also reminds me of my job interview at Utah. As a postdoc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I was working on rather complicated nonequilibrium statistical mechanics of spatially inhomogeneous, chemically reacting fluids. This involved a lot of fancy equations and was difficult to describe in a clear, simple picture. After I told Eyring about my work, I could tell that it did not appeal to him. In fact, he kindly suggested that I not work "in rococo" but focus on the basics of problems and make sure the problem was important.

I must say that I did not know how to reply to Eyring's criticism because I did not know what the word rococo meant, so I kept my mouth shut. However, later in life, I very much appreciated Eyring's advice to seek the heart of a question and address the basics rather than worrying about the nuances. I realize this is a matter of personal choice, but it is a style of doing science I have grown to enjoy.

Finally, the author tells a story that illustrates how Eyring treated all people as he would have them treat him. He emphasized to a student "how important it is to care about people even when they are small and may not seem very important" and the "importance of being good to people you pass on the way up because you will want them to be good to you when they pass you on their way up and you are on the way down." I fondly recall my good friend Joe Hirschfelder, who was Eyring's Ph.D. student at Princeton, giving me exactly this same advice when I was a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin.

I admired and liked Henry Eyring as a scientist and as a person. This book allows the reader to gain much insight into what formed the character of this caring and sensitive "compulsive little worker" who was one of our nation's best and most creative theoretical physical chemists of the 20th century.

Jack Simons is Henry Eyring Scientist and professor of chemistry at the University of Utah.

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