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Southern California's All Stars

Some of the Century's Most Brilliant Innovators Were at the Top of Their Game on Southern California's Science and Technology Playing Fields. Here's Our List of the Top 20--and Some Major Contenders.

July 25, 1999|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | Times Science Writer

List-making by any measure is an imperfect art, not even remotely akin to science. Times editors and science writers compiled the brain trust before you from an initial tally of 100 key innovators who had done a substantial part of their work in Southern California--and not even winning a Nobel prize guaranteed making this A-list of 20 of the century's most influential scientists and engineers.

Freelance writer-researcher Joel Grossman diligently compiled these mini-biographies of people who, by general consensus, had the greatest impact on their fields and our world. No doubt the prominent omissions will evoke gasps. Like science itself, this list is the product of an argument about the essence of the world we inhabit, which is continually revised as new information leads to new insights.

It must be noted that we faced a dilemma in presenting this list--essentially a dilemma of the century itself. It is one that also confronted planners at the California Science Center, where you will not find any tribute to the state's 51 Nobel-winning scientists. If their portraits were on display, the faces--like those that follow--would be almost exclusively male and overwhelmingly white--not the most inclusive signal that a center seeking to inspire careers in science should send to the diverse thousands of youngsters who throng its halls every school day.

The face of 21st century science will be dramatically different. It is a transformation already well underway--to everyone's benefit. One measure of this century's social journey is that today's concerns over race and gender have largely set aside the divisions of nationality, religion, class and political belief that formed such formidable barriers for many of these earlier immigrants, refugees and outsiders.

If California can be considered a state of mind, the pioneers before you deserve the highest place of honor in its meritocracy. These researchers and engineers have done as much as any group anywhere to create the world we will inhabit in the 21st century.

CHEMISTRY

Donald Cram

Born April 22, 1919, Chester, Vt.

Grew up poor, swapping 50 hours of lawn mowing for an hour of dentistry after his father died. Progressed from one-room schools to biscuit salesman making rounds in Harlem and New York's tough East Side before pursuing chemical research.

Shortly after obtaining Harvard PhD in 1947, settled into current niche as UCLA chemistry professor. After two decades studying carbon reactions important to living organisms, got bored and started new field he called "host-guest chemistry." Basically, he became a designer of new molecules that fit targets so perfectly [like lock-and-key fit of enzymes] that they function as highly sensitive sensors, electrodes and molecular traps. Called supermolecules by some, Cram's crown-shaped ethers were singled out in 1987 Nobel award for being sensitive enough to distinguish mirror-image amino acid molecules.

Along with career came two marriages, lots of surfing and much self-searching. When not at the lab bench, Crambo, as he is known to his surfing buddies, is just another guitar-playing dude on San Onofre's Old Man's Beach.

*

George Olah

Born May 22, 1927, Budapest, Hungary.

After 1956 Hungarian revolt, he fled homeland with most of research group and two cardboard boxes of worldly possessions. First stop London, where wife had relatives. Then Canada, where mother-in-law lived. Found job improving Dow Chemical's plastic-making processes.

A 12-year professorial stint in Cleveland, Ohio, led him and 15 research group members to USC in 1977. USC built the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute so Olah could create stable carbocations [positively charged hydrocarbons] using "superacids" zillions of times stronger than 100% sulfuric and hydrochloric acids. Previously, carbocations existed only in theory as ephemeral transition states, disappearing in micro- or nanoseconds without a trace.

Olah won 1994 Nobel for creating the first carbocations stable enough to study, a breakthrough leading to practical benefits like higher-octane gasoline and a zero-emission methanol fuel cell. Has two sons and wife, Judy, who knew him from childhood and studied chemistry to work alongside him. In his autobiography, Olah admits that his wife sometimes laments his apparent belief that "there is little in life outside chemistry."

*

Ahmed Zewail

Born Feb. 26, 1946, Alexandria, Egypt.

Graduated from Egypt's Alexandria University, earned PhD at University of Pennsylvania, then two-year UC Berkeley fellowship before 1976 acceptance of professorship at Caltech, where he currently is first occupant of the Linus Pauling chemical physics chair. Pioneered field known as femtochemistry, using lasers as strobes to see molecular behavior at super-fast femtosecond time scale of atomic vibration. Femtochemistry is like having a camera film a million frames every billionth of a second, or 100 trillion frames in the blink of an eye.

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