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Harry the Horse : Whether blazing organic trails or binging on pizza, honored Caltech professor keeps the chemistry alive

September 25, 1988|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

Another year will begin Monday at Caltech, where, in keeping with rich tradition, students will pull off some outrageous prank, the faculty will acquire more international prestige and Harry (the Horse) Gray will convulse Chem I.

That's how it has been during the 22 years that the eminent chemist Gray has been whipping up his unique brew of creativity and clowning.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 29, 1988 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part 9 Page 2 Column 4 Zones Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Caltech scientist Harry Gray's specialty was incorrectly identified in an article (Times, Sept. 25). Gray is a pioneer in inorganic chemistry.

As Gray likes to say, "You gotta keep people excited."

To many, the 52-year-old Gray personifies Caltech, where imaginative antics are respected as a mark of scientific genius.

Among students, Gray seems to take on mythic proportions as the professor who lectured in a horse's costume one Halloween. That was when he was still working toward a discovery in 1982 that led to winning the nation's top scientific award, the National Medal of Science, in 1986.

Known thereafter as "Harry the Horse," Gray was the first professor to appear in a Caltech student production. The director was inspired to cast him as the crapshooter Harry the Horse in "Guys and Dolls" because of Gray's nickname.

Gray is among the most prestigious, award-winning scientists at Caltech, which has 21 Nobel laureates among its faculty and alumni.

Gray was named California Scientist of the Year last spring by the California Museum Foundation of the California Museum of Science and Industry, and will head the Beckman Institute at Caltech when it opens late next year. The interdisciplinary institute will be unique to Caltech, focusing on chemistry-biology and chemistry-engineering projects for scientists all over the world. Gray said he will do some research there.

But even while heading the center, Gray said he will teach freshman chemistry, something many top professors eschew in favor of working with graduate students. All students at the school must take Chemistry I, and classes usually average about 200 students.

Teaching Chem I is important, Gray said, "because I think teaching young people who are just learning things for the first time is what keeps us all going."

Yet musing over his upbringing in rural Kentucky, where chemistry and higher education were virtually unknown, Gray pondered the irony that he had never had an inspirational teacher when he was the age his students are now. Ignited by his own curiosity and "a family of eccentrics," he wonders whether "all the fancy education it takes to get to a place like this" might snuff out the kind of creative sparks that fired him as a child.

"You can do plenty of things without teachers," he said.

In bursts of ebullience, partly to keep the sparks flying and partly because he can't help it, Gray jokes, conducts dramatic chemical demonstrations, roars with laughter and clowns with 18-year-olds, wondering what they'll think of next.

They trashed his office, so he wore the horse costume. They reversed all the seats in his lecture hall, so he taught from a tiny chalkboard in the back. They brought in a Hare Krishna monk to chant all day, began a class with a popular song about scientific elements and once rewired his office.

Gray and a team of graduate students binged on pizza on the day in 1982 when they had proof that proteins transfer electrons over longer distances in living cells than scientists had previously believed. They recorded the great moment in scientific history on the empty pizza containers.

A spokesman at the California Museum of Science and Industry said Grey's "findings affect scientific issues as diverse as meeting future energy needs and computer miniaturization."

Key Role

Electron transfer plays a key role in photosynthesis, the biological process that provides most of the world's energy supply and oxygen. Gray's discovery provides greater understanding of how photosynthesis works in transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen. It opens possibilities for developing an artificial counterpart to photosynthesis. Museum spokesmen said that through Gray's work, researchers are learning how energy storage and conversion can be achieved in synthetic chemical systems.

A Caltech spokesman said new synthetic chemical systems may be adapted to the role that silicon chips now play in computers.

Gray said solving such problems as energy shortages and the increase in carbon dioxide that is believed to cause the so-called greenhouse effect in the Earth's atmosphere are "possibilities at the end of a long rainbow, but at least we are beginning to understand how Mother Nature solved the same problems."

When Gray returned from the White House, where he received the National Medal of Science for his pioneering work, students met him at the airport and "kidnaped" him for a late night beach party.

"I like pranks better than anybody," Gray said. But he has never participated in students' infamous "high-tech" kinds of stunts, such as converting the hillside HOLLYWOOD sign to say CALTECH last year.

'Instant Gratification'

"I think those are wonderful, but they are two-year projects," he said. "Mine have been more for instant gratification."

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