Profile: Robert Harris
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
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.
from Harris's party, January 2004