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He's a Rad Scientist : Winning the Nobel Won't change USC's new laureate. He proudly says he'll continue to be the good chemist he was before he won fame and $935,000.

November 08, 1994|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

There are times when George A. Olah--USC's new Nobel laureate--suspects that anyone who really wants to understand him needs an advanced degree in chemistry.

That may explain why, one day in 1950, he came home and announced to his new wife that he had enrolled her as a chemistry major. He did not think to ask her first whether she was actually interested in the bonds that hold the material world together.

And it did not occur to her to refuse.

It was an unexpected experiment in the chemistry of marriage.

"Believe me, it was the biggest shock of my life," says Judith Olah. "He came home radiant. 'I enrolled you,' he said. 'In chemistry.' Without asking me. I had absolutely no intention, let me assure you, ever of studying chemistry in my life."

Nonetheless, she earned undergraduate and then graduate degrees in chemistry. She spent 40 years working in her husband's laboratory, retiring three years ago as an adjunct professor of chemistry at USC.

"Can I defend myself?" the imperturbable Hungarian-born researcher asks in his accented rumble like distant thunder.

"The life of a scientist is not a very easy life," he begins. "Once you are hooked on science, it takes up so much time. I am not complaining. I am doing this with joy. It is not just what you do in the lab or with students. It is thinking and writing and so on . . . a hell of a lot of time.

"An essential part of any happy marriage," he continues, "should be some understanding and balance. I think if somebody doesn't understand what the other partner is doing, this can cause real difficulty. Our happy marriage, I attribute in part to the fact she started to understand what this is all about.

"So," Olah says, "she became a chemist."

They enjoy the moment of silence.

"I think that is the smartest thing he did," she says.

*

Only on the most pristine days can George and Judith Olah see all the way from their patio at the lip of Coldwater Canyon to the Pacific Ocean. Most of the time the view is obscured by the curtain of smog common in most American cities held captive by the automobile.

In one way or another, the distinguished USC chemist has been trying to clear the air all his life.

To the average person, the most noticeable benefits of his scientific insights are lead-free gasoline, cleaner high-octane gas and the promise of other non-polluting fuels that might one day reduce the burden of hydrocarbons in the atmosphere.

But those are only a few spinoffs from Olah's exploration of chemical reactions involving hydrocarbons--fundamental building blocks of life--which has revamped basic research in biomedicine and industrial chemistry.

To his peers in the world of advanced chemistry, Olah's work unlocked an entire world of previously elusive reactions and unexpected chemical structures.

In the research that most impressed the Nobel Prize committee, Olah showed a way to capture and stabilize a class of unusual chemical compounds so fleeting that their lifetimes can be measured in millionths of a second. And he created a new class of powerfully corrosive acids to stabilize them long enough to study in detail. Colleagues said his breakthrough was the fruit of a characteristic leap of imagination.

"He really does march to a different drummer," says Stanford University chemistry professor John I. Brauman. "He doesn't buy into the conventional wisdom. That is what makes his stuff so important. It really is different and, it turns out, amazingly interesting.

"He could actually make new reactions happen that you couldn't get before," Brauman says.

For several years, USC officials and Olah's colleagues at other schools have been calling his work "Nobel-class." When he was persuaded to move from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to USC in 1977, he had already been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Nonetheless, the telephone call that announced his 1994 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was a shock when it actually arrived Oct. 12 at 6:30 a.m.

Messages from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which makes the Nobel Prize selections, are not a normal part of Olah's early-morning routine that begins at dawn with a half-hour of laps in the swimming pool, followed by yogurt, an English muffin and a 12-hour workday.

The prize--and the $935,000 cash award that accompanies it--brings with it almost instant international recognition.

So far, Olah is taking the attention in stride.

"I take my science exceedingly seriously. It is my life. But I try to keep myself in proportion," he says. "I don't believe in stuffy scientists who get the feeling because they got a prize that all at once they are exceptional people. As much as I appreciate it, I thought I was a pretty good chemist a week ago and a month ago."

At 67, he has reached a point in life when many people have retired, but he still actively pursues his research projects, teaching responsibilities and the day-to-day direction of the Loker Hydrocarbon Institute at USC.

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