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By Caitlin Jennings, Communications Coordinator, Society for Science & the Public
Recently, Kelly Benoit-Bird (ISEF 1994) became the twelfth Society alumni to earn the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Grant” — in 1983, R. Stephen Berry (STS 1948) became the second. However, before he became a MacArthur Fellow, Special Advisor to the Director for National Security, and the James Franck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago, he says he was rather naïve.
“The only real exposure I had to physics…was my mother’s high school physics books. So I knew from that that physics was about ladders leaning against walls. So, from that, obviously chemistry was fascinating and physics was boring,” he says, which caused him to be certain he wanted to study chemistry, and not physics, at an early age.
Ironically, a physics teacher at his high school was the one who encouraged Steve to apply for STS. The idea of doing his own chemistry project intrigued him, so he poured over the books at the Denver Public Library until he found a problem that had not yet been solved: an unknown structure to an organic compound. He thought, “Maybe I could figure out what that structure might be.”
He says he was naïve about the way to go about the project. For example, after ordering the phosphorus pentachloride he would need to examine the structure, he received a can full of crumbly stuff, which confused him. “I discovered there was a bottle inside the can, which had the stuff I really wanted,” he says laughing. The crumbly stuff turned out to be vermiculite, which can be used as insulation. After overcoming that hurdle, he finished and submitted the project and “I promptly forgot about the whole thing.”
Until he got a call letting him know he had won a trip to Washington, D.C. He remembers getting his picture in the local paper before traveling to the nation’s capital and meeting the other finalists, many of whom became his good friends. He has kept in touch with Ron Breslow, Paul Martin, and Barbara Wolff, who we also recently profiled.
His time at STS also helped him make a major life decision. He was looking at MIT and other technical schools, because he wanted a strong science program. It wasn’t until STS, when he was able to talk with scientists for the first time, that he learned that Harvard also had strong science research programs, and the liberal arts education appealed to him. “I really was interested in learning about things outside of science as well as about science while I was in college,” he says, so he decided to go to Harvard.
Over the last several decades he has published hundreds of papers and authored or co-authored five books mostly on atomic and molecular processes, thermodynamics, and management of natural resources. In retrospect, he says, it is amusing he works on thermodynamics. He had been taught, erroneously, that it was closed and complete, which made it one of the last things he wanted to study further. He has also found physics much more fascinating than his mom’s textbook initially let on and enjoys collaborating with physicists as well as other scientists. For example, he is currently teaching a class on energy policy with an economist.
Even with all of his accomplishments, one of his biggest challenges has been teaching non-science students. “It was just amazing to me to realize how much we can take for granted in teaching even the most elementary courses to science students that we can’t assume the non-science students know,” he says. “It’s quite fascinating how little things can change ones view of the world.”
This challenge, and a concern with the broad problem of science illiteracy, was what prompted him to recently co-chair the Global Science, Education and Engagement Partnership (GSEE) an organization that works with multiple science outreach programs to advocate for science education that provides a strong science background to all students.
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