Martin Karplus

Born: March 15, 1930 | Vienna, AT

Martin Karplus was born in Vienna, Austria. During the Nazi occupation of Austria, the family moved first to Switzerland, then to Massachusetts. An early experiment using a microscope to study rotifers in drain water began his lifelong interest in observing nature. Karplus entered Harvard University to study physics and chemistry. For graduate school Karplus worked with Linus Pauling at Caltech. From California he went to Charles Coulson’s lab at the University of Oxford. His first faculty position was at University of Illinois, where he developed the Karplus equation. Karplus then went to Columbia’s IBM Watson Laboratory, where he and Richard Porter developed the Porter-Karplus surface. He took a position at Harvard and began the CHARMM program to study molecular dynamics simulations. He, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel were awarded the Nobel Prize for the development of multiscale modeling for complex chemical systems. In his interview Karplus discusses his ability to visualize things; his love of birds; his gift for photography; his appreciation of European culture; and his extensive academic career. He says some of his work did not advance science until later; that it is important to avoid dead ends, that understanding the essential elements of a problem is crucial. He shares memories of the Nobel Prize ceremony and reception, as well as the impact the Prize has had on opportunities for himself and for others.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0926
No. of pages: 170
Minutes: 557

Interview Sessions

David J. Caruso and Roger Eardley-Pryor
9 December 2015, 4 March and 25 May 2016
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Abstract of Interview

Martin Karplus was born in Vienna, Austria, one of two sons. Karplus’ father was in banking; his mother was a dietician at the family’s Fango-Heilanstalt Clinic. During the Nazi occupation of Austria, the family moved first to Switzerland, then to the Boston, Massachusetts, area. Always competing with his older brother, Martin used a microscope to study rotifers in drain water, the beginning of his interest in observing many aspects of nature. He began birdwatching, eventually attending the Lowell lectures and joining the Audubon and Brooklyn Bird Clubs. He won the Westinghouse Talent Search with his research on hybrid gulls, which presented the opportunity to meet President Truman.

Following his brother, a physicist, Karplus entered Harvard University to study physics and chemistry. He spent a summer at Cornell University studying bats with Robert Galambos and took a trip to Alaska to study plovers’ migration patterns, adding his own study of robins’ feeding patterns for their young. During his time in Alaska, Karplus began a lifelong hobby and passion for photography. He worked on retinal with George Wald and Ruth Hubbard, wanting to know how things work rather than to go into medicine. His last class at Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute convinced him he was not an experimentalist.

In graduate school Karplus worked with Linus Pauling at California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he realized importance of intuition. He did a quantum mechanical study of the bifluoride ion, though he never published his dissertation. From California he went to Charles Coulson’s lab at the University of Oxford. There he wrote his first chemistry publication, which is a quantum mechanical calculation of the quadrupole moment of the hydrogen molecule. His first faculty position was at University of Illinois, where he developed the Karplus equation, dealing with spin-spin coupling, and wrote a paper on the quadrupole moment of hydrogen. Karplus then joined IBM Watson Laboratory in New York, but after a few years he moved to Columbia University where he and Richard Porter developed the Porter-Karplus surface and used it for calculations of the H+H sub 2 reaction.  Continuing his five-year plan, he took a job at Harvard and returned to biology. He and his students developed the CHARMM program for molecular dynamics simulations. He, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel were awarded the Nobel Prize for the development of multiscale modeling for complex chemical systems, which Karplus says could not have happened except his work with Andy McCammon and Bruce Gelin developing molecular dynamics simulations of proteins.

In his interview Karplus discusses his ability to visualize things; his love of birds; his gift for photography; his appreciation of culture. He describes the Stouffer Lectureship where he gave his “Marsupial Lecture.” He says some of his work did not advance science until later; that it is important to avoid dead ends, that understanding the essential elements of a problem is crucial. Karplus acknowledges the influence on his work of the ever-increasing power of computers; the largest user of National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) computers does molecular dynamics. He shares memories of the Nobel Prize ceremony and reception, as well as the impact the Prize has had on opportunities for himself and for others. He decries some aspects of academic research, but he maintains that it is still greatly preferable to industry research.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1950 Harvard University BA Physics and Chemistry
1953 California Institute of Technology PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

University of Oxford

1954 to 1955
Postdoctoral Fellowship, with C.A. Coulson
1999 to 2000
Eastman Professor

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

1955 to 1957
Instructor
1957 to 1960
Assistant Professor
1960
Associate Professor

Columbia University

1960 to 1963
Associate Professor
1963 to 1966
Professor

Harvard University

1966 to 1979
Professor
1979 to 1999
Theodore William Richards Professor of Chemistry
1999 to 2004
Theodore William Richards Research Professor
2004 to 2018
Theodore William Richards Professor Emeritus of Chemistry

Université Paris, XI

1972 to 1973
Professeur Associé
1980 to 1981
Professeur Associé

Université Paris VII (Diderot)

1974 to 1975
Professeur

Collège de France

1980 to 1981
Professeur
1987 to 1988
Professeur

Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg

1992
Professeur Associé
1994 to 1995
Professeur Associé
1995 to 2015
Professeur Conventionné

Honors

Year(s) Award
1947

Westinghouse Science Talent Search Scholarship

1965

Fresenius Award of Phi Lambda Epsilon

1966

American Academy of Arts & Sciences

1967

National Academy of Sciences

1967

International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science

1967

Harrison Howe Award, Rochester Section, American Chemical Society

1979

Award for Outstanding Contribution to Quantum Biology, International Society for Quantum Biology

1986

Distinguished Alumni Award, California Insitute of Technology

1987

Irving Langmuir Award, American Physical Society

1991

Foreign Member, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

1991

National Lecturer, Biophysical Society

1993

Theoretical Chemistry Award, American Chemical Society, Innagural Recipient

1995

Joseph O. Hirschfelder Prize in Theoretical Chemistry, University of Wisconsin

1988

Doctor Honoris Causa, Université de Sherbrooke

1999

Master of Arts (Honorary), Oxford University

2000

Foreign Member of the Royal Society, UK

2001

Computers in Chemical & Pharmaceutical Research Award, ACS

2001

Anfisnen Award, Protein Society

2004

Linus Pauling Award, Northwest Section, American Chemical Society

2006

Ehrendoktorat, Universität Zürich

2007

Inaugural David L. Weaver Lecturer in Biophysics and Computational Biology

2008

Lifetime Achievement Award in Theoretical Biophysics (IASIA)

2009

G.N. Ramachandran Award Lecture, Indian Biophysical Society

2010

Russell Varian Prize

2011

Antonio Feltrinelli International Prize for Chemistry from Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei

2013

Foreign Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry

2013

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2014

Commandeur de la Legion d'Honneur

2014

Doctor Honoris Causa, Bar-Ilan University

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born Vienna, Austria. Family background. Fango-Heilanstalt Clinic. Father in banking, mother dietician at the Fango. Brother Robert’s career as physicist, debilitating heart attack. Secular, well-integrated family until Anschluss; six months in Switzerland while father in jail in Vienna; then migrated to United States. Adapting to American culture. Sibling rivalry. Birding, Boy Scouts. Moves to Newton, Massachusetts. Meeting Ludlow Griscom at Lowell lectures. Audubon and Brooklyn Bird Clubs. Westinghouse Talent Search winner with research on hybrid gulls. Meeting President Truman.

College Years
31

Chooses Harvard University, following brother. Summer at Cornell University with Robert Galambos. Trip to Point Barrow, Alaska, to study plovers’ migration patterns. Photography in Alaska. Interest in how things work. Biology with George Wald and Ruth Hubbard; work on retinal. Always wanted to be professor. Three years to finish.

Graduate School
52

Last class at Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute. California Institute of Technology (Caltech) over University of California, Berkeley, on recommendation of his brother and Robert Oppenheimer. Driving from Boston, Massachusetts, through Canada to observe nature and birds. Smoggy first impression of San Fernando Valley. Needs chemistry and physics to understand biology well. First seminar with Max Delbrück; moves to John Kirkwood’s lab. Friendship with Richard Feynman. Linus Pauling’s lab. Working with Pauling; importance of intuition. Discovering molecular mechanics of BPTI; dissertation never published.

72
Postgraduate Years

Chooses University of Oxford to be in Europe; best theoretical chemistry. National Science Foundation fellowship. Trip to Paris, France, then Yugoslavia and Vienna. Staying with uncle at recovered Fango. Politics. Rosenbergs. Karplus’ FBI dossier. Ongoing anti-Semitism in Austria. Charles Coulson’s lab; wants to do useful chemistry research. Quadrupole moment of hydrogen; writing process; first chemistry publication. Very early nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) using homemade equipment. Early scientists in NMR.

Five-Year Plans
81

Job offer from University of Illinois. Herbert Gutowsky and spin-spin coupling. Karplus equation now taught in all organic chemistry classes; very important. Quadrupole moment paper. Aron Kuppermann. Leaves for Columbia University’s IBM Watson Laboratory, with an adjunct assistant professorship. Discussion of industry/government versus academics for research. Importance of computers at Harvard and the Watson. Richard Porter. H plus H2; Porter-Karplus surface. Ramesh Sharma, Porter, and Karplus’s textbook. About five years: time to move again.

Harvard Professorship
98

Back to biology. Festschrift for Pauling; Wald and Hubbard article about retinal. Mixture of quantum and classical mechanics led to Nobel Prize. Weizmann Institute and Christian Anfinsen’s talk about protein folding. David Weaver’s predictions of rate of folding. Discussion of film society at Caltech; meeting Charlie Chaplin. Connections among film, photography, science, and birds require visualizing:  important for molecular dynamics. Arieh Warshel from Israel to be Karplus’ postdoc. Bruce Gelin and Chemistry at Harvard Macromolecular Mechanics (CHARMM). Working with hemoglobin. Work with Andrew McCammon and first molecular dynamics calculation on BPTI; hemoglobin molecule too big at time; now Markus Meuwly works on hemoglobin. Only able to work on BPTI on computer in France, so back to France. Liked lifestyle, especially theater; family details; chalet and summer vacations.

Continuing Work
113

Simulation of biomolecular dynamics. Gives first David Weaver lecture: “Marsupial lecture.” Levinthal’s paradox and folding helical proteins. Proteins not rigid but fluctuationg systems. Discussion of native state of proteins. Double β-hairpin and Amedeo Caflisch. Anton computer. ROSETTA program developed by David Baker. Understanding essential elements crucial. Importance of three-dimensional model for visualizing. Visual Molecular Dynamics (VMD) program and Nanoscale Molecular Dynamics (NAMD). Commercializing and licensing CHARMM, other programs. Graphics program called Hydra. Consulting for PolyGen/BIOVIA and Vertex; designing drugs. Nobel Prize for multiscale modeling for chemical systems. Working with Paul Bash, Martin Field, Gregory Petsko leading to QM/MM part of CHARMM. Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt.

Further Thoughts
148

Importance of avoiding dead ends, working only on what is possible; necessity for computers. Supercomputers; evolution of computers, influence on Karplus’ work. Access to ARPANET, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Northwest Energy Source Computing Center (NERSC). Molecular dynamics simulations largest users. Change in focus of National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants and effects on Karplus. Using Nobel money for talks to young people. Invitations to historically black colleges. Description of receiving award. Nobel lecture about development of molecular dynamics and its applications. Nobel given for multiscale modeling, but believes it would not have received it if not for molecular dynamics. Axel Brünger and John Kuriyan. Crystallography and XPLOR. Balancing work and home lives easy. Academic research versus industry.

Publication List
165
Index
166

About the Interviewer

David J. Caruso

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.

Roger Eardley-Pryor

Roger Eardley-Pryor earned his PhD in 2014 from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). At UCSB, he became a National Science Foundation graduate fellow in the Center for Nanotechnology in Society. Prior to that, Roger earned his B.Phil. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Miami University in Ohio. As a historian of science, technology, and the environment, Roger taught courses at Portland State University, at Linfield College in Oregon, and at Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington. From 2015-2018, Roger held a postdoctoral Research Fellowship in the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute. His work explored ways that twentieth and twenty-first-century scientists and engineers, culture-makers, and political actors have imagined, confronted, or cohered with nature at various scales, from the atomic to the planetary. Roger also co-designed, earned funding for, and managed the place-based oral history project titled “Imagining Philadelphia’s Energy Futures.” In 2018, Roger joined the Oral History Center in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.