Gábor Somorjai

Born: May 4, 1935 | Budapest, HU

Gábor Somorjai was born in Budapest, Hungary, during World War II. He eventually matriculated in Minta Gimnázium and was accepted to the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, studying chemical engineering. When the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, Somorjai escaped to Austria and learned about Charles Tobias at the University of California, Berkeley. He immigrated to the United States, eventually accepted at by Berkeley, working with Richard Powell. Somorjai accepted a job at International Business Machines. He built an instrument for his research into low-energy electron diffraction, and observed that catalytic reactions take place on surfaces. Somorjai is called the father of surface science. He is working on heterogenizing homogeneous catalysis to yield hybrid catalysis, and attempting to figure out how to do enzyme catalysis in a hybrid model with heterogeneous catalysis, and then working out how multiple catalysts work. He maintains that the “discovery of [his] life” is that catalytic reactions are controlled by the size and shape of nanoparticles; when two-dimensional they form a Langmuir-Blodgett film, and when three-dimensional they are useful to industry.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0910
No. of pages: 96
Minutes: 279

Interview Sessions

Hilary Domush
30 and 31 January 2014
University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California

Abstract of Interview

Gábor Somorjai was born in Budapest, Hungary, during World War II and lived an comfortable, integrated life until Anti-Semitic laws impacted the family. His paternal grandfather had converted to Judaism. His mother’s family was in the shoe business. Anti-Semitic laws cost Somorjai’s father, a math genius, his bank job, whence he was conscripted and sent to the Russian front. The elder Somorjai was interned eventually in Mauthausen concentration camp and returned with typhoid. Like many Hungarians, the Somorjais were rescued by Raoul Wallenberg and eventually returned to their home, but the Russian occupation forbade school, so Gábor played chess and read history until he eventually matriculated in Minta Gimnázium. From there his basketball coach got him into Budapest University of Technology and Economics, where he studied chemical engineering, interested in polymers and catalysis. When the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, Somorjai and his girlfriend, later his wife, escaped to Austria. In Vienna he met Cornelius Tobias and learned about Charles Tobias at the University of California, Berkeley. The two immigrated to the United States, eventually accepted, provisionally, by Berkeley. At Berkeley Somorjai switched to chemistry, working with Richard Powell on his long-lived dream of catalysis. During this time he also married.

PhD in hand and dream in heart, Somorjai accepted a job at International Business Machines (IBM). He built an instrument for his research into low-energy electron diffraction (LEED), and observed that catalytic reactions take place on surfaces. His interest in surfaces extended from electrical to chemical reactions, and he began to study platinum and then oxide-metallic interfaces. This led to the study of nanotechnology and the development of the scanning tunneling microscope. Interesting even to laymen are his explanation of why ice is slippery and his discussion of contact lenses, which he points out are polymers; both have their effectiveness on the surface. He is called the father of surface science. Moving at last to catalysis, he began consulting on catalytic converters for General Motors Company. Though he says that instruments magically appear when needed, in fact he has developed most of his own. There are three types of catalysis:  heterogeneous, homogeneous, and enzyme. Somorjai is working on heterogenizing homogeneous catalysis to yield hybrid catalysis, and attempting to figure out how to do enzyme catalysis in a hybrid model with heterogeneous catalysis, and then working out how multiple catalysts work. He maintains that the “discovery of [his] life” is that catalytic reactions are controlled by the size and shape of nanoparticles; when two-dimensional they form a Langmuir-Blodgett film, and when three-dimensional they are useful to industry.

Somorjai explains how he brought his parents to the United States while he was at IBM. He talks about Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All. He wants to do science as long as he can, he says, stressing the importance and explosive increase of science in United States and the change of science research from industry to academia. Somorjai says that finding and placing students is important; he always looked for those with the dream and attempts to place them in the best possible situations. Somorjai has published many articles and books and won many, many awards. He and his wife have established at Berkeley the Somorjai Award and the Somorjai Professorship.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1956 Technical University of Budapest BS Chemical Engineering
1960 University of California, Berkeley PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

IBM Corporation

1960 to 1964
Research Staff

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

1964 to 2017
Faculty Senior Scientist

University of California, Berkeley

1964 to 1967
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
1967 to 1972
Associate Professor of Chemistry
1972 to 2017
Professor of Chemistry

Honors

Year(s) Award
1969

Guggenheim Fellowship

1969

Visiting Fellow, Emmanuel College, United Kingdom

1972

Unilever Visiting Professor, University of Bristol, United Kingdom

1976

Kokes Award, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland

1976

Elected Fellow, American Physical Society

1977

Emmett Award, American Catalysis Society

1978

Miller Professorship, University of California, Berkeley

1979

Member, National Academy of Sciences

1981

Colloid and Surface Chemistry Award, American Chemical Society

1982

Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

1982

Distinguished Scholar for Exchange with China

1983

Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

1986

Henry Albert Palladium Medal

1989

Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1989

Senior Distinguished Scientist Award, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

1989

E.W. Mueller Award, University of Wisconsin

1990

Honorary Membership in Hungarian Academy of Sciences

1994

Adamson Award in Surface Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1995

Chemical Pioneer, American Institute of Chemists

1997

Von Hippel Award, Materials Research Society

1998

Wolf Prize in Chemistry

2000

American Chemical Society Award for Creative Research in Homogeneous or Heterogeneous Catalysis

2000

Linus Pauling Medal for Outstanding Accomplishment in Chemistry, American Chemical Society, Puget Sound, Portland and Oregon Section

2002

National Medal of Science

2003

Cotton Medal, Texas A&M University

2006

Remsen Award from the Maryland Section of the ACS

2006

Honorary Fellow, Cardiff University

2007

Langmuir Prize from the American Physical Society

2008

Priestley Medal from the American Chemical Society

2009

Senior Miller Fellow, Miller Institute, University of California, Berkeley

2009

Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science Award

2009

Excellence in Surface Science Award from the Surfaces in Biointerfaces Foundation

2009

Fellow of the American Chemical Society

2009

Honorary Membership, Chemical Society of Japan

2011

Honda Prize

2017

ENI New Frontiers of Hydrocarbons Prize

2011

BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences

2013

National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences

2015

William H. Nichols Medal of the New York Section of the American Chemical Society

2015

Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry

2017

Richard Award, Harvard University

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born in Budapest, Hungary. Paternal grandfather converts to Judaism. Mother’s family in shoe business; mother worked there too; all lived in family house. Impact of Anti-Semitic laws. Middle-class, well integrated into culture. Father sent to Russian front, returns from Mauthausen-Gusen with typhoid. Family rescued by Raoul Wallenberg; eventually Russian occupation returned family to home. No school allowed; plays chess and reads history. Finally allowed into Minta Gimnázium.

College and Graduate School Years
9

Enters Budapest University of Technology and Economics in chemical engineering. Summers in military. Interest in polymers and catalysis. Hungarian Revolution occurs in his fourth year. Escapes to Austria with girlfriend and other resistance members. Meets Cornelius Tobias and learns about Charles Tobias at University of California, Berkeley. On preference quota list; immigrates to United States. Conditional acceptance from Berkeley. Switches from chemical engineering to chemistry. Work with Richard Powell on catalysis. Working in chemical industry during summers. Learning English. Friendships with Powell, Leo Brewer, Tobias. Importance of having a dream.

The Working World
23

Accepts job at International Business Machines (IBM). Three kinds of catalysis:  homogeneous, heterogeneous, and enzyme. Explosive growth of science in second half of twentieth century; government funding. X-ray scattering; built instrument. Built transistor computer; Fairchild and integrated circuits. Space science yielded ultra-high vacuum to clean up surfaces of transistors. Lester Garner, Clinton J. Davisson, early television. Wife’s career, first child.

Cross-Country Move
34

Wants to work on surfaces; accepts assistant professorship at University of California, Berkeley. Building low-energy electron diffraction machines with Emery Kozak. Roots and genealogy of American science. Ivy League versus West Coast schools. Work on platinum single crystals. First to use metal single crystals in chemistry. Joseph Lester; Stig Hagström. First publication on restructuring of metals still important but not accepted at first. Somorjai now referred to as father of surface science. Why ice is slippery. Developing new instrumentation for surfaces. Lab composition and size; students’ careers. Elected to National Academy of Sciences. From biointerfaces to nanoscience to catalysis.

Continuing Career
47

Instruments magically appear when needed. Yen-Ron Shen. Consulting for General Motors Company (GM) on catalytic converters. Removing lead from gasoline; sending his students to GM. L. Louis Hegedus. Three-way catalysis, sensor technology, platinum-rhodium ratio. Problems of heat and cold. Innovators in research were in industry but now in academia. Lag in results too long for industry’s bottom line. American system of science vs. German. Competition and opportunities. Sir John Pendry. Solving structures at molecular level. Surface science; molecular beam scattering. Nonlinear laser spectroscope; second harmonic generation theory. Nobel Prizes for Leonard Schawlow, Kai Siegbahn, Charles Townes, Yuen-Ron Shen, Nicolaas Bloembergen. Sum frequency generation; built scanning tunneling microscope prototype. Nanoparticles. Polymers; contact lenses and biointerfaces.

Catalysis
69

Oxide-metal interface; oxide-metal ion chemistry. Beginning work in nanoscience. Comparison of platinum nanoparticles with single crystals. Discovery of his life:  nanoparticles’ sizes and shapes control catalytic reactions. Two-dimensional:  Langmuir-Blodgett film. Three-dimensional for industry. Dean Toste. Heterogenizing homogeneous catalysis to yield hybrid catalysis. Figuring out how to do enzyme catalysis in hybrid model with hererogeneous catalysis. Catalysis architecture.

General Observations
80

Finding and placing students important. Wants to do science as long as he can. International interactions. Somorjai Award; Somorjai Professorship at Berkeley. Function of awards in upward mobility. Trips to Hungary, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, China. Complacency arising from security in life. Honorary degree from Budapest University of Technology and Economics. Advisory board for Hungarian Academy of Sciences until board dissolved by government. Brought parents to United States while he was at IBM. Parents established and worked in children’s clothing store until they died. Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All. Importance and explosive increase of science in United States. Change of science research from industry to academia. Vladimir Ipatieff and Russian chemistry.

Index
94

About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.