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Glad Scientist

Child of Einstein Age, Arnold Beckman Sows Educational Seeds for Another

September 21, 1998|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't easy jockeying the wheelchair into place under the keyboard of the baby grand piano. The chair arms were a little high and the footrests kept getting hung up on the pedals, but after a few moments everything was set and Arnold O. Beckman began to play.

They were old songs. Timeless songs. "Yankee Doodle." "Jingle Bells." Ditties, really.

But each note spun the engine of time in reverse until Beckman, age 98, was a young man again. In Newport Beach, the Four Seasons hotel ballroom--the scene Tuesday of a dinner in Beckman's honor--became a movie theater in a small Illinois farm town, the chairs filled by long-forgotten neighbors watching the silent, flickering screen as young Arnold played along in the dark.

It's been a long time since those days, since Arnold Beckman first played piano. At his age, it's been a long time since Arnold Beckman first did most things.

But everything he's done has invariably been done well. He was such a good student, Caltech hired him as a chemistry professor after graduation. A good idea man, he solved a friend's technical problem--how to measure acidity in lemons--by developing the pH meter, now a laboratory staple worldwide.

And he was such a good businessman that he parlayed his innovative instruments into an international company that, when he sold it in 1982, netted him a reported $500 million.

These days, Arnold Beckman is proving to be a good spender. Last week, Beckman, a Corona del Mar resident, announced a $14.4-million program to improve science education in Orange County's school districts, the second-largest private donation to a California public-school system.

The program, called Beckman@Science, provides $3 million for the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana to train elementary teachers in science; another pool of money for grants of up to $200,000 for individual districts; and hundreds of science kits for children to conduct experiments with.

The gift came through the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation in Irvine, which over the last 20 years has given away more than $300 million, some of it to establish research facilities at five universities and medical centers, including the Beckman Laser Institute at UCI. The foundation also has granted 112 awards totaling $21 million to early-career researchers to support their work. Existing assets rank the foundation 109th in the nation, according to the Foundation Center, a nonprofit watchdog group.

In many ways, the bequests mirror the giver. Friends and colleagues describe Beckman as a man with a lifelong passion for scientific inquiry and invention.

"He's a scientist first in his thinking," said Louis T. Rosso, who retired earlier this month as president of Beckman Coulter medical diagnostic equipment, and remains chairman of the board.

And for many, Beckman has served as mentor and role model. Tuesday's banquet, an invitation-only affair at which Beckman performed his unannounced mini-recital, drew seven present and former heads of universities and dozens of Orange County business leaders.

During the meal, a slide show of aphorisms, some coined by Beckman, flickered on large screens. "Change is inevitable except from a vending machine." "Be nice to your kids. They'll choose your nursing home."

And Beckman's personal code: "There is no satisfactory substitute for excellence."

As Beckman ran through the old ditties on the piano--fingers remarkably nimble and accurate for their years--his face remained impassive, as though all the work was being done inside, the fingers connected directly to memory.

"How about one more song?" developer George Argyros, the host, asked as applause faded.

"Which one?" Beckman responded.

"How about 'The Old Gray Mare?' " Argyros suggested with a sly grin.

The crowd erupted in laughter. A hint of a smile seeped into Beckman's face as he locked warm eyes with Argyros. Gnarled fingers reached out for those old and familiar notes.

When Science Was Young

By his own admission, Beckman doesn't do much these days.

"Rest," he said when asked how he spends most of his time.

Details of the past are cloudy, and the present isn't much clearer.

But the wit is sharp. Beckman has encountered some of the major names in 20th century science. Former schoolmates went on to win Nobel Prizes. Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr were part of a stream of visitors to Caltech before Beckman left to make his millions. He reflects for a minute when asked who stands tallest among all those names.

"Einstein would be the one," he said.

Why Einstein?

"I don't know, he just does," Beckman said dismissively; then, with the hint of a smile: "One reason is, his name is easy to pronounce."

Beckman was born four months into the benchmark year of 1900, the son of a blacksmith and his wife in rural Illinois. At age 10, Beckman was rummaging in his parents' attic and found a copy of an 1861 chemistry primer. Half of the book was given over to home experiments.

"At that time, chemistry was pretty simple stuff," Beckman said.

He was hooked.

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