Thursday, March 26, 2009

Walter Kauzmann (1916 -2009): the master of thermodynamics

Walter Kauzmann was a pioneer in understanding condensed phases of matter. Two of his most important contributions to science (the hydrophobic interaction and a paradox concerning glasses) were made using his profound understanding of thermodynamics. He first introduced the notion of a hydrophobic interaction. Before any structures of proteins were known he deduced solely from thermodynamic data on the solvation of small organic molecules that a protein must fold so that the non-polar amino acids are predominantly in the centre of the protein. I discuss this in a lecture I often give to undergraduates at the University of Queensland in the course PHYS2020: Thermodynamics and Condensed Matter Physics.

Kauzmann wrote a beautiful article, Reminiscences of a life in protein physical chemistry, that I warmly recommend. One point he makes repeatedly in the article is that in science (and life) people will often believe what they want to believe rather than what the evidence before them suggests they should believe. The article recounts some of the "silly" things (from the perspective of our knowledge today) people believed about proteins in the 1950's, and how reluctant the advocates of these theories were to give up on them. Those of us trying to understand complex materials today, and especially biomolecular function, should be sobered and chastened by this lesson from history.

Kauzmann co-authored with David Eisenberg the definitive monograph on water and a beautiful "ancient" text, Quantum Chemistry (1957) which I found extremely helpful as an undergraduate and today.

Bruce Alberts testifies to Kauzmann's personal legacy in this fascinating article where he describes how Kauzmann mentored him. Alberts is currently the Editor in chief of the journal Science, a former past president of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, and a co-author of the definitive text, The Molecular Biology of the Cell.

More about Kauzmann's life is available here. I was privileged to have some personal interaction with him, while a graduate student (in physics not chemistry) at Princeton, because he was a long-time friend of my late father. However, I did not realize what a great scientist he was and how much I could have learnt from him. Back then I was a some-what narrow-minded physicist who had not developed a fascination with problems at the interface of chemistry and physics. Youth is wasted on the young!

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