Digital Collections

Oral history interview with Martin Karplus

  • 2015-Dec-09
  • 2016-Mar-04
  • 2016-May-25

Martin Karplus was born in Vienna, Austria, one of two sons. Karplus’ father was in banking; his mother was a dietician at the family’s Fango-Heilanstalt Clinic. During the Nazi occupation of Austria, the family moved first to Switzerland, then to the Boston, Massachusetts, area. Always competing with his older brother, Martin used a microscope to study rotifers in drain water, the beginning of his interest in observing many aspects of nature. He began birdwatching, eventually attending the Lowell lectures and joining the Audubon and Brooklyn Bird Clubs. He won the Westinghouse Talent Search with his research on hybrid gulls, which presented the opportunity to meet President Truman.

Following his brother, a physicist, Karplus entered Harvard University to study physics and chemistry. He spent a summer at Cornell University studying bats with Robert Galambos and took a trip to Alaska to study plovers’ migration patterns, adding his own study of robins’ feeding patterns for their young. During his time in Alaska, Karplus began a lifelong hobby and passion for photography. He worked on retinal with George Wald and Ruth Hubbard, wanting to know how things work rather than to go into medicine. His last class at Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute convinced him he was not an experimentalist.

In graduate school Karplus worked with Linus Pauling at California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he realized importance of intuition. He did a quantum mechanical study of the bifluoride ion, though he never published his dissertation. From California he went to Charles Coulson’s lab at the University of Oxford. There he wrote his first chemistry publication, which is a quantum mechanical calculation of the quadrupole moment of the hydrogen molecule. His first faculty position was at University of Illinois, where he developed the Karplus equation, dealing with spin-spin coupling, and wrote a paper on the quadrupole moment of hydrogen. Karplus then joined IBM Watson Laboratory in New York, but after a few years he moved to Columbia University where he and Richard Porter developed the Porter-Karplus surface and used it for calculations of the H+H sub 2 reaction. Continuing his five-year plan, he took a job at Harvard and returned to biology. He and his students developed the CHARMM program for molecular dynamics simulations. He, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel were awarded the Nobel Prize for the development of multiscale modeling for complex chemical systems, which Karplus says could not have happened except his work with Andy McCammon and Bruce Gelin developing molecular dynamics simulations of proteins.

In his interview Karplus discusses his ability to visualize things; his love of birds; his gift for photography; his appreciation of culture. He describes the Stouffer Lectureship where he gave his “Marsupial Lecture.” He says some of his work did not advance science until later; that it is important to avoid dead ends, that understanding the essential elements of a problem is crucial. Karplus acknowledges the influence on his work of the ever-increasing power of computers; the largest user of National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) computers does molecular dynamics. He shares memories of the Nobel Prize ceremony and reception, as well as the impact the Prize has had on opportunities for himself and for others. He decries some aspects of academic research, but he maintains that it is still greatly preferable to industry research.

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