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Nobel winner's work at CMU paved the way to the prize

Wednesday, October 14, 1998

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

People at Carnegie Mellon University always knew that John A. Pople's work was at the forefront of chemistry and yesterday the Nobel prize jury confirmed their beliefs, naming the emeritus professor one of two winners of this year's chemistry prize.

Nobel prize winner John Pople talks with staff at Northwestern University from his son's home in Houston, Texas, after receiving the news of the honor yesterday. (Brett Coomer, Associated Press) 

Pople, 72, who spent almost three decades in the chemistry department at Carnegie Mellon, shares the prize with a physicist, Walter Kohn of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Kohn, 75, is a native of Austria.

Though they never collaborated, Pople and Kohn had tackled different aspects of the same problem -- using mathematical calculations to predict the properties of molecules. Kohn was mostly interested in understanding the properties of solids, Pople noted yesterday, while he was primarily interested in chemical applications.

"At the time he was doing it, the work was understood to be very fundamental," said Guy Berry, a chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon and a contemporary of Pople. The results were programs that can be run on desktop computers and are standard tools used by thousands of chemists, astrophysicists and other scientists the world over.

The computer programs are used to develop new drugs, synthesize new polymers and predict changes in atmospheric chemistry, such as ozone depletion, said Pople, who joined the chemistry faculty at Northwestern University in Chicago in 1986.

Most of the work recognized by the Nobel jurors, however, was done while he was at Carnegie Mellon, he said yesterday from Houston, Texas, where he is visiting one of his sons.

Pople received word of his prize while he and his wife, Joy, were having breakfast in a hotel. His daughter, Hilary, who lives in Chicago, had caught word of the prize over the Internet and called her father in Texas to break the news.

"I knew my name had been put forward" for the prize, he said, "but I had no idea this was coming."

Pople was born in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, in western England in 1925. Though he gained fame as a chemist, he was trained as a mathematician, earning his doctorate in mathematics at Cambridge University in 1951. He was a research fellow and a lecturer in mathematics at Cambridge before becoming superintendent of the Basic Physics Division of the National Physics Laboratory in Teddington, England.

He came to Pittsburgh in 1964 as a professor of chemistry physics at what was then known as Carnegie Institute of Technology. His departure from England helped spark a political furor in his native land over a "brain drain." At the time, he estimated as many as 10 percent of all British scientists with doctorates were leaving because of low salaries and poor opportunities.

"Scientific research receives much better backing in the United States and the scientists themselves tend to get paid more," he told the Post-Gazette then. "But the main reason I came over and settled here in Pittsburgh is the dynamic environment resulting from the presence of so many people in my field."

Even before arriving at Carnegie Tech, Pople had written a seminal work on nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, a technique used by chemists to analyze the composition of chemicals, Berry noted. NMR later would be used as the basis for magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, a technique now widely used at hospitals to image internal organs and structures in the body.

Pople, who settled in Churchill, also was named an adjunct senior fellow at Mellon Institute, then a private research institute. Pople's work required heavy calculations and the Mellon Institute's specialized calculating machines likely were a major draw for him in those years before the formation of Carnegie Mellon and its emergence as a computer science powerhouse, Berry said.

The limitations of computer science then forced Pople to develop very efficient codes. He wouldn't face the same constraints today, when computing power is cheap, but the efficiency of his codes continue to pay dividends today, Berry said. The efficient codes allow researchers to study extremely complex chemical reactions using only a desktop computer.

Though the codes aren't 100 percent accurate in predicting chemical reactions, they allow scientists to make pretty good guesses. In combustion chemistry, for instance, it's difficult to make measurements of the chemical reactions as they take place in a combustion chamber. But Pople's codes allow chemists to predict what is going on and identify what products should be produced; that allows them to design experiments to confirm the predictions, Berry said.

Likewise, astrophysicists studying the optical spectra of strange chemical species in space can use the codes to calculate the properties of these exotic molecules that don't exist on earth, he added.

Pople incorporated his codes into a computer program called Gaussian in 1970. But he noted yesterday that the work has spawned a number of similar programs. Four of his Carnegie Mellon students, he said, later started companies to produce these programs.

"I've had excellent students," he said, "and I had excellent support from Carnegie Mellon."

Pople's opinions were widely respected but, a modest man, he seldom volunteered them. "You had to seek out his opinions," Berry said.

A popular teacher known as a clear lecturer, Pople briefly served as chairman of the chemistry department. "I don't think he cared for that much," Berry added.

Pople and his wife later moved to Chicago and Pople took a research position with Northwestern to be near their daughter. "For the last few years (at CMU) I was commuting from Chicago," he said.

In 1992, the American Chemical Society recognized his work by awarding him the Wolf Prize, an honor that is considered equivalent to the Nobel.

He was in Pittsburgh last weekend visiting his youngest son, Andrew, who works as a computer software developer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"We're very proud of him," said Andrew Pople, of Mt. Lebanon. "We feel he's worked very hard for this."

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