A Tribute to Professor Lipscomb

Professor Lipscomb, together with fellow Nobel Laureate, Rich Roberts and the Nicola Hawkins Dancers, performing in the premiere and only performance of the ballet “The Interpretive Dance of the Electrons” at the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Photo: Alexandra Murphy.

by Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research staff

Very sad news. My good friend and longtime collaborator William Lipscomb died this past April (2011) after a period of ill health.

Bill, also known as “The Colonel” because he was a Kentucky Colonel, was a great scientist. A prize grad student of Linus Pauling, Bill went on to himself be awarded a Nobel Prize and later still to see several of his own students and mentees be given Nobel Prizes. He was also perhaps the best and funniest performer in most of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies (the photo here shows him in the 1994 ceremony, dancing in “The Interpretive Dance of the Electrons”) and in many other adventures we had together (some of which you can see in video form, on the www.improbable.com web site.).

Improbably photogenic, he was a frequent cover model for the Annals of Improbable Research—indeed, he was the most frequently pictured person there. Other magazines splash supermodels, singers, or politicians on their covers; we usually chose, instead, the man whose image was more compelling than that of a mere movie star. It was nearly impossible to see Bill performing, or even a photo of him in performance, and not be entranced.

He was the prize in the very first Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest, at the 1993 ceremony. We subsequently gave him away numerous times, including last year, 2010, when he made his final Ig Nobel appearance. By that time he had trouble walking, but gleefully insisted on being part of the show. He and his wife, Jean, issued a kind and firm invitation to hold our opera rehearsals at their home prior to the ceremonies in 2009 and 2010.

At the 2008 ceremony, Professor Lipscomb and Benoit Mandelbrot, the inventor of the mathematical concept of fractals, evaluate something or other, each in his own way. Photo: Kees Moeliker.

Professor Lipscomb in His Own Words
I interviewed Bill several times for this magazine and for its predecessor (of which I was the editor for several years), and now wish I had done it many more times. These were not just interviews but performances, usually with only ourselves as an immediate audience. Bill was both himself, Professor Lipscomb, and, at the same time, a slightly heightened version of himself that we both came to know as “Professor Lipscomb.” The character carried over to the stage each year at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony and occasionally in other public settings.

Here’s part of an interview he and I did in 1996. It appeared that year in vol. 2, no. 2 of the magazine.

William Lipscomb is the Abbott and James Lowell Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Harvard University. In 1976 he received a Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research on the structure and bonding of boron compounds and for his general discoveries about the nature of chemical bonding.

QUESTION: In your paper “Boron Arrangement in B9 Hydride,” you discuss two plausible hydrogen atom arrangements.

Well, the fact is, this was a very difficult problem, because it was presented to us as a compound containing eight boron atoms, when it really contained nine. We were completely at a loss to understand it, and we tried out all the possibilities for the B8 hydride, and finally concluded that there couldn’t be eight—there must be one more. So we put another one in and it worked. This is an illustration about science that if you eliminate all the other possibilities, then if only one more remains, that must be the correct one. Well, that reminded me—I was then at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a chapter of the Sherlock Holmes Society “The Norwegian Explorers.”

QUESTION: Yes, Sherlock Holmes is very interesting. Now, we were talking about the hydrogen atoms…

Yes, I just wanted to illustrate that this was done using the method of Sherlock Holmes. In the complete works of Sherlock Holmes there are four places where Holmes says, “Wherever all other contingency fails, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” This is Holmes’s method. Now, the other three places use wording that’s rather like that but not exactly like that.

Professor Lipscomb with a statue of Colonel Sanders in Japan. (Image credit: CC Jean C. Evans)

QUESTION: Indeed. Now about the arrangement of those hydrogen atoms…

The whole thing has to do with the number of boron atoms and the method of Holmes. This is a scientific method. You get all the possibilities except one final remaining one, and in doing this you have a method of science. And this is the method which Holmes used in at least four different places in the complete works of Sherlock Holmes—

QUESTION: About those hydrogen atoms…

You see, the Baker Street Irregulars is a society that has existed for a great many years, and they do research on
Sherlock Holmes, finding problems to solve. Here’s an example of a research problem. In the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, Watson’s wife, who was born Mary Morstan, refers to her husband as John. Of course, that’s his name—John H. Watson, as Holmes writes in the volume. And the solution of this problem was actually achieved by Dorothy Sayers. There’s one place in which he’s referred to as “James,” rather than “John.” Now,
it’s impossible that she could have not known her husband’s name. So the solution of this problem is that the H. stands for “Hamish,” which is Scottish for “James.” This is the kind of problem that one solves in Sherlock Holmes.

QUESTION: And the hydrogen problem?

Yes. Well, Holmes is a model for scientific investigation. He worked in the days when they didn’t use fingerprints. They used mental effort alone. They were presented with a problem, and he used his brains to work it out, and look for all the clues that he could. Now, what is a better way to do science?

William Lipscomb (multi-striped hat), Sheldon Glashow, and three other Nobel Laureates (not pictured here) perform the new Stanley Eigen poem, "DNA and Green Eggs and Ham," at the 1995 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony.

QUESTION: Exactly. Now about those hydrogen atoms. They form an icosahedral fragment.

You see, the stories were not really written by Conan Doyle, who was a literary agent. They were written by Watson, except for four of them which were written by Holmes himself. So there’s something wrong with the idea that these are to be attributed to Doyle.

QUESTION: Indeed. Now, given that each boron atom supplies four orbitals but only three electrons—

There’s another aspect to Holmes that I really enjoyed very much. He was a violinist—a very fine musician, as Watson notes. Holmes needed some relaxation on a few occasions, and he used to go to concerts, and he played the violin. I really like that, because solving problems is an art, too, just like the performance of music, so it helps enormously.

QUESTION: Yes, it does. Well, thank you for talking with us!

You’re very welcome. There’s another method of Holmes that has not yet appeared in the literature, and that I hope to use. It refers to Silver Blaze. Silver Blaze is the name of a racehorse. One night the horse disappeared from the stable. Holmes was given the job to find out who did it, and towards the end of the investigation, he’s discussing the case with Watson, and he says, “Well that’s all right, but what about the curious incident of the dog in the night time?” And Watson says, “But the dog did nothing in the night time.” “That is the curious incident,” Holmes says. That means, you see, that since nothing happened, that was an important clue that the dog recognized the person who had visited the stable. When we have an experiment and we expect something to happen—yet nothing happens—this is the appropriate reference from Sherlock Holmes. I hope to use that some day in a paper.

* * *

[NOTE: The interview concerned, at least on one level, the study “Boron Arrangement in a B9 Hydride,” Richard
E. Dickerson, Peter J. Wheatley, Peter A. Howell, William N. Lipscomb, and Riley Schaeffer, Journal of Chemical Physics, vol. 25, no. 3, Sept. 1956, pp. 606–7. Footnote 4 of the paper quotes Sherlock Holmes describing his theory of contingencies. The quotation is from the Arthur Conan Doyle story“The Bruce Partington Plans.”]

(YouTube link)


This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2011 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. The issue contains much more material from Dr. Lipscomb. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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