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George Olah, 1927-2017

George Olah, 1994 Nobelist in chemistry, has passed away. Yet another of the extremely distinguished list of Hungarian-born scientists of the 20th century, Olah is remembered for (among other things) his pioneering work with “superacid” solutions as a means of studying carbocations directly. This led him, famously, into a long-running dispute with H. C. Brown on the structure of the norbornyl cation, a controversy that was still reverberating a bit even when I was in school (and whose final shot was fired just recently). Suffice it to say that Olah and his camp were correct – the structure first proposed by Saul Winstein back in the 1940s is the real one, although Winstein himself did not live to see his idea completely vindicated.

He was correct about a lot of other things as well, and he had a long and productive career in both the chemical industry and at USC. His work provided new reagents, new synthetic methods, and above all a wealth of insights into chemical reactions in general. Fewer and fewer chemists of his era are left.

Update: added some more history to the post, of which there is a lot.

15 comments on “George Olah, 1927-2017”

  1. Curious Wavefunction says:

    RIP. I met Olah at the ACS meeting in 2006. A gentle giant of a man, he was patient but did not suffer fools gladly. His book “The Methanol Economy” is worth a read. His isolation of stable nonclassical ions was a real bombshell, but the truly elegant NMR work was done by Martin Saunders IMO who used isotopic substitution to nail down the chemical shifts in the norbornyl cation.

  2. Some idiot says:

    There goes one of the great thinkers. RIP.

  3. luysii says:

    t’s hard to know if anyone cares about this any more except the original protagonists, most of whom are long gone (RIP H. C. Brown), but a huge controversy raged for decades on whether a nonclassical cation (e.g. not representable by a Lewis structure) existed in the fused ring system of norbornane and its derivatives. Science vol. 341 pp. 62 – 64 ’13 contains a truly definitive answer (hopefully) along with a lot of historical background should you be interested. An Xray crystallographic structure of a norbornyl cation (complexed with a Al2Br7- anion) at 40 Kelvin shows symmetrical disposition of the 3 carbons of the nonclassical cation. It was tricky, because the cation is so symmetric that it rotates within crystals at higher temperatures. The bond lengths between the 3 carbons are 1.78 to 1.83 Angstroms — far longer than the classic length of 1.54 Angstroms of a C – C single bond.

  4. SoCal chemist says:

    A gentle giant indeed. I remember him joking about himself being the Susan Lucci of the Chemistry Nobel Price. His first nomination was 1972, nominated every year until he got the Price in 1994. He inspired people around him to be better human beings, not just another chemist.

  5. Nicholas Yee says:

    What a coincidence, I am a chemistry student and during some supplemental readings yesterday I came across his Wikipedia page. It always astounds me how tightly knit the academic chemistry community really is, hearing that some of you have actually met the man.

    1. Nitrosonium says:

      Look like he underwent an irreversible rearrangement to an infinitely stable carbocation.

  6. Anonymous says:

    A story told by a famous Prof (future Nobelist) to us undergrads in organic chem lecture to highlight the personal nature of the non-classical ion debate. He didn’t tell us which party was which, but two big players, HC Brown vs (Olah or Winstein or ?) were presenting at a symposium. There was no pointer (this was pre-laser, of course), so the lecturer was using a broom. The next speaker took the podium and said, “After that presentation I think that a shovel would be more appropriate.”

    These days, what would you say? “After that presentation, I think that a 5 MW laser would be more appropriate than a 5 mW laser.” I don’t know. It doesn’t send the same message.

    1. Curious Wavefunction says:

      Another anecdote showcasing the personal nature of the debate: At one point Jack Roberts publicly compared Brown to a trucker trampling on beautiful flowers with his muddy boots. The general consensus is that both Brown and Winstein were brilliant chemists who were unusually driven seekers of the truth, but Brown could be a disingenuous man.

  7. Drew says:

    he spend quite some time at Case Western Reserve University doing research on super acid before moving to USC

  8. Anon says:

    Olah’s passing also marks the end of the glory days of industrial research. Olah laid the groundwork for his seminal research while employed at the Dow Chemical Company, then moved back to academia. As a more recent Dow alum, it saddens me to see the current state of corporate research. If Olah were working for Dow today, he’d be regurgitating stale science and formulating commodity polymers instead of pushing the frontiers of science. Once the imminent Dow/DuPont merger closes, 2017 will have seen the passing of three giants of chemistry; unfortunately, only one of those giants passes into the annals if history with his legacy untarnished.

    1. Vader says:

      From the point of view of a stockholder simply wanting to make money, why should the company whose stock you own spend money doing cutting-edge research when the government will pay university researchers to do it and you can have the results for free?

      1. Anonymous says:

        For one thing, the company will retain 100% of such discoveries to develop, license or profit from as they wish. If waiting around for public funded research results, you will be competing against others to license, you’ll be 2-5 years behind the cutting edge, and you still have a hill to climb to get from the R to D to profits.

        And there is the additional risk that the research results you are licensing are nothing but an non-reproducible a bucket of crap.

        1. Vader says:

          The problem is that basic research is not subject to patent. It has to reach the point of usefulness to qualify for IP protection.

  9. Hap says:

    Politically, a big part of our problem is too many HC Browns and not enough Olahs. Winning isn’t everything.

  10. Brian says:

    I highly recommend George’s autobiography “A Life of Magical Chemistry.” It’s a great read and captures some of the fascinating time of his life and chemistry prior to leaving Hungary. He was a remarkable man and will be dearly missed. RIP.

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