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Faculty Profile: Robert Harris

 

Professor Robert Harris

Bob is a hermit who thrives on social interaction. He works on some of theoretical chemistry’s deepest and most conceptually challenging problems, but despite countless hours of solitary labor, [he] maintains numerous collaborations . . . and never becomes intellectually or personally isolated.” So observes an entry made in a memory book recently given to chemistry professor Robert Harris.

Harris wants to understand everything that there is to understand. Even his website says so: “Professor Harris has found that understanding the universe is proving more difficult than anticipated. He has not, however, given up on his quest.” This thirst for knowledge is apparent in the many topics he has studied in his Berkeley tenure. During his 41 years as a professor in the chemistry department, Harris has undertaken theoretical studies on such fundamental topics as atoms, molecules, radiation, weak interactions and condensed matter. A theoretical chemist, he has focused on quantum mechanics.

Collaborations within the college
In Harris’s early years at Berkeley, he collaborated with John Hearst to devise equations to describe polymer dynamics. Known as the Harris-Hearst Models for Dilute-Solution Viscoelastic Behavior, the famous equations are still useful in studying the hydrodynamic properties of DNA in solutions. He has also had a number of fruitful collaborations with other faculty and with students in both chemistry and physics.

 

Robert Harris and John Hearst pose with an “equation cake” with the Harris-Hearst Models for Dilute-Solution Viscoelastic Behavior as a decoration.

More recently, Harris teamed up with scientists in Alex Pines’s group to investigate the chirality of xenon compounds in NMR. (Chiral molecules do not have a plane of symmetry and thus exist in two forms—one right-handed and one left-handed.) Harris and his collaborators made a thorough investigation of nuclear magnetic shielding and chirality. Their findings incorporate Harris’s quantum mechanical theory with the practical applications of Xe atoms in NMR.

Additionally, Harris has had a successful collaboration with his former graduate student Jeffrey Cina (Ph.D. ’85, Chem), currently a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon. Together, the two scientists have produced a fluent description of superpositions of handed wave functions, a tool used in the quantum mechanical description of chirality.

Free reign in the chemistry lab
Harris fell in love with chemistry early, albeit his first love was experimental chemistry. “I had a standard chemistry set as a child and used to hang out in pharmacies because I liked the equipment used there for measuring and preparing medicines. By the time I was twelve, I had a functional laboratory in my basement and had taught myself college-level chemistry. When I entered high school I went to the chemistry teacher and asked if I could have the run of the chemistry laboratory. He pulled down an old window shade and asked if I could solve a simple equilibrium problem. I solved the problem and had the run of the laboratory for my freshman year of high school. I never blew anything up, but I did develop a plastic that I tried to sell to Union Carbide. They wisely decided not to take me up on it,” he said, smiling fondly at the thought.

A new love: Theoretical chemistry
Once he entered college at the University of Illinois, he lost all interest in chemistry; however, he still majored in the subject. In his junior year his focus switched to theoretical chemistry. “I took a class taught by Martin Karplus and was immediately excited by the possibilities that theoretical chemistry offered.” He studied statistical mechanics in graduate school with Stuart Rice at the University of Chicago, and he came to Berkeley after three years as a Junior Fellow at Harvard.

“Two beatniks” arrive
“I came to Berkeley in 1963 and loved the atmosphere,” said Harris. “When my wife, Christine, and I first appeared in the chemistry department it was said that two beatniks had arrived.” It was a volatile time, during the Vietnam War, and he was solidly anti-war. “I never took grants in my early years, as I felt they were too influenced by the military,” he said. Noted Cina, “He loathes injustice and hardship and wishes for a better world, but is wary enough of ideology to make practical choices in the here and now. He’s a consummate outsider, but never fears to ‘speak the truth’ to—or about—power.” Harris did eventually take grants, but Hearst was his main source of support for many years.

Outside of science (and politics), Harris has a passion for the piano. “I love beauty and, to me, the piano is beautiful,” he said. To this day, Harris takes piano lessons with Hearst's mother, Lily, a remarkable woman currently in her 106th year, and practices an hour and a half practically every day.

Continuing on the same path
As he thinks about his retirement, Harris expects life to continue on the same creative path. He plans to continue research, write a book, spend time with family and play the piano. “My lab is wherever I go, since I find my best work is done when I am walking,” observed Harris. “Ideas just come to me. I think about questions I would like to address, and then starting thinking about how to solve them. “I am probably a terrible model for scientists that way, since I can’t always explain how I work,” he said with a laugh. And as a student pointed out, “This ‘retirement’ will allow him to keep pursuing his love of science and the performance and self-education of teaching at full bore.”
Coming together to celebrate his work on a bright January day at emeritus professor John Hearst’s home in Berkeley, Harris’s friends and family reminisced about his retirement. “This retirement will likely be just one more creative and entertaining episode in the life of a highly creative guy,” said Cina.

Related sites:

Robert Harris website

Photos from Harris's party, January 2004




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