The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.
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.
|1950||Harvard University||BA||Physics and Chemistry|
|1953||California Institute of Technology||PhD||Chemistry|
University of Oxford
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Université Paris, XI
Université Paris VII (Diderot)
Collège de France
Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg
Westinghouse Science Talent Search Scholarship
Fresenius Award of Phi Lambda Epsilon
American Academy of Arts & Sciences
National Academy of Sciences
International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science
Harrison Howe Award, Rochester Section, American Chemical Society
Award for Outstanding Contribution to Quantum Biology, International Society for Quantum Biology
Distinguished Alumni Award, California Insitute of Technology
Irving Langmuir Award, American Physical Society
Foreign Member, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
National Lecturer, Biophysical Society
Theoretical Chemistry Award, American Chemical Society, Innagural Recipient
Joseph O. Hirschfelder Prize in Theoretical Chemistry, University of Wisconsin
Doctor Honoris Causa, Université de Sherbrooke
Master of Arts (Honorary), Oxford University
Foreign Member of the Royal Society, UK
Computers in Chemical & Pharmaceutical Research Award, ACS
Anfisnen Award, Protein Society
Linus Pauling Award, Northwest Section, American Chemical Society
Ehrendoktorat, Universität Zürich
Inaugural David L. Weaver Lecturer in Biophysics and Computational Biology
Lifetime Achievement Award in Theoretical Biophysics (IASIA)
G.N. Ramachandran Award Lecture, Indian Biophysical Society
Russell Varian Prize
Antonio Feltrinelli International Prize for Chemistry from Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei
Foreign Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Commandeur de la Legion d'Honneur
Doctor Honoris Causa, Bar-Ilan University
Table of Contents
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
About the Interviewer
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 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.