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Neil Bartlett, 1932-2008

I’ve neglected to note the death of Neil Bartlett, famous for showing that the noble gases would in fact form chemical bonds. This work was a real triumph, since the great majority of scientific opinion at the time was that such compounds were impossible. Bartlett, though, formed a rather startling compound while working on the platinum fluorides, which he realized was actually a salt of dioxygen. The idea that oxygen would be oxidized to a cation in an isolable salt was weird enough at the time, and Bartlett realized that if this could happen, then the same system should be able to oxidize xenon.
And so it did. It’s difficult to convey how much nerve it takes to do experiments like this. I don’t mean the dangers of working with such reactive fluorine compounds, although that’s certainly not to be ignored. (Bartlett spent much of his career working in this area, and only a skilled experimentalist could do that and remain in one piece). No, it’s actually very hard to get out there on the edge of what’s known and do things as crazy as making salts of oxygen and fluorides of noble gases, Consider that if you’d lined up a hundred high-ranking chemists to vet these experiments beforehand, most of them would have pursed their lips and said “Are you sure that you’re not just wasting your time on this stuff?” It takes nerve, and not everyone has it – but Bartlett did, and he had the brains and the skills to go along with it. You need all three.
There’s a good appreciation of him in Nature, which points out – to my mind, absolutely correctly – that he should have won the Nobel Prize for this work. In fact, I thought he had for a long time, and only a few years ago realized that I had that wrong. (I may have been reinforced in my opinion by a statement in Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table). I think that if you polled chemists as a group, you’d find that a majority would be under the same impression – and if that’s not a sign of the highest-level work, having everyone surprised that you never got a Nobel, then I don’t know what is.

5 comments on “Neil Bartlett, 1932-2008”

  1. Those are kind words and in fact the chemical world seems to have let a few giants of inorganic chemistry slip away recently without widespread celebration / recognition of their work. Neil was my “chemical grandfather” (PhD supervisor of my PhD supervisor) and our lab would sometimes be amazed with stories of the UBC era. His unique insight into the chemistry of the elements was his synthesis of synthetic inorganic chemistry with thermodynamics.
    To be completely fair to the chemistry though we should always acknowledge that the discovery of the noble gas compounds was indeed a race as thrilling as the one documented by James Watson in “The Race for the Double Helix”. The best, most readable account of what happened in those years is given in: P. Laszlo and G.J. Schrobilgen, “One or Several Pioneers? The Discovery of Noble-Gas Compounds,” Angewandte Chemie, International Edition in English, 27:479–489 (1988). It is worth a read.

  2. eugene says:

    I thought he won a Noble Prize for that too… I heard a story about how he made the compound from an old timer over at UBC. Apparently the first time he made xenondifluoride (I believe) and was testing its properties, he didn’t take enough precautions and when trying to get the melting point it exploded, resulting in Bartlett walking around campus for the next month looking like someone shot him in the face with a shotgun.

  3. SRC says:

    This is sad news. Neil Bartlett was always the consummate gentleman, cheery, good-natured, and just an all-around good guy.
    The physical courage to do noble gas chemistry cannot be overlooked. My lab at Berkeley was adjacent to the Bartlett group, and they had an explosion – and I don’t mean a little pop, but an ear ringing job that brought us all rushing to make sure everyone was OK – at least once a month. Neil himself carried a piece of shrapnel in his eye then. I don’t know whether it was ever removed.
    He should have won the Nobel Prize, but I never heard him squawk about not having won it. As indicated above, the consummate gentleman.

  4. BACE says:

    Bartlett, G N Lewis, Frank Westheimer, John C Slater, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Hawking, Mahatma Gandhi…the Nobel committee just keeps on accumulating moral debt.

  5. David Christopher Rogers says:

    This organic chemist was forced by diversity requirements to take a class from him at Berkeley, and he came as close as anyone has to entice me away from the fascination of organic bonds into the inorganic realm.
    Forget the Nobel prize, he knew he already won the “Noble Prize”. Kudos to him, his lab, and his students. R.I.P.

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