Oral history interview with Gábor Somorjai

  • 2014-Jan-30 – 2014-Jan-31

Gábor Somorjai was born in Budapest, Hungary, during World War II and lived an comfortable, integrated life until Anti-Semitic laws impacted the family. His paternal grandfather had converted to Judaism. His mother’s family was in the shoe business. Anti-Semitic laws cost Somorjai’s father, a math genius, his bank job, whence he was conscripted and sent to the Russian front. The elder Somorjai was interned eventually in Mauthausen concentration camp and returned with typhoid. Like many Hungarians, the Somorjais were rescued by Raoul Wallenberg and eventually returned to their home, but the Russian occupation forbade school, so Gábor played chess and read history until he eventually matriculated in Minta Gimnázium. From there his basketball coach got him into Budapest University of Technology and Economics, where he studied chemical engineering, interested in polymers and catalysis. When the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, Somorjai and his girlfriend, later his wife, escaped to Austria. In Vienna he met Cornelius Tobias and learned about Charles Tobias at the University of California, Berkeley. The two immigrated to the United States, eventually accepted, provisionally, by Berkeley. At Berkeley Somorjai switched to chemistry, working with Richard Powell on his long-lived dream of catalysis. During this time he also married.

PhD in hand and dream in heart, Somorjai accepted a job at International Business Machines (IBM). He built an instrument for his research into low-energy electron diffraction (LEED), and observed that catalytic reactions take place on surfaces. His interest in surfaces extended from electrical to chemical reactions, and he began to study platinum and then oxide-metallic interfaces. This led to the study of nanotechnology and the development of the scanning tunneling microscope. Interesting even to laymen are his explanation of why ice is slippery and his discussion of contact lenses, which he points out are polymers; both have their effectiveness on the surface. He is called the father of surface science. Moving at last to catalysis, he began consulting on catalytic converters for General Motors Company. Though he says that instruments magically appear when needed, in fact he has developed most of his own. There are three types of catalysis: heterogeneous, homogeneous, and enzyme. Somorjai is working on heterogenizing homogeneous catalysis to yield hybrid catalysis, and attempting to figure out how to do enzyme catalysis in a hybrid model with heterogeneous catalysis, and then working out how multiple catalysts work. He maintains that the “discovery of [his] life” is that catalytic reactions are controlled by the size and shape of nanoparticles; when two-dimensional they form a Langmuir-Blodgett film, and when three-dimensional they are useful to industry.

Somorjai explains how he brought his parents to the United States while he was at IBM. He talks about Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All. He wants to do science as long as he can, he says, stressing the importance and explosive increase of science in United States and the change of science research from industry to academia. Somorjai says that finding and placing students is important; he always looked for those with the dream and attempts to place them in the best possible situations. Somorjai has published many articles and books and won many, many awards. He and his wife have established at Berkeley the Somorjai Award and the Somorjai Professorship.

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