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2003-06, 338, Robert J Hunter, Science


Walter Moore, scientist and author

After completing his PhD at Princeton in 1940, American-born Walter Moore (1918-2001) joined Linus Pauling at Caltech as a Post-doctoral Fellow. Pauling was already one of the great chemists of the day, whose seminal book, The nature of the chemicalbond, was to lay the basis for chemical theory for decades and earn him one of his two Nobel Prizes (the other one being for Peace).

Pauling’s major specialty was X-ray crystallography, which is the use of X-rays to explore how atoms fit together to form a solid. Pauling was already moving from the study of minerals and other, more or less simple, chemicals to bring his techniques to bear on the much more complicated biological systems, like proteins. Indeed, he was laying the foundations for the whole field of molecular biology which was to blossom in the 1960s and beyond. Walter took on the more traditional chemicals initially, but he was to return to the structure of proteins and devoted his whole research program to that study when he came to Sydney in the mid-1970s.

Soon after war broke out for the USA, in late 1941, the Manhattan Project was established to develop the atomic bomb, and Walter was recruited into that highly secret and ultimately fateful activity for the whole period of the war. I don’t think he was ashamed of his part in that program, but I can’t ever remember him referring to it.

After the war, he took up his first academic appointment in Chemistry at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and it was there that he wrote the textbook Physical Chemistry, which was to change the face of the subject and become the bible for generations of students in the years from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. It had no real competitors for most of that period. We in Sydney were still using an old pre-war text by Samuel Glasstone when I was an undergraduate in 1951 and 1952, but Walter’s book swept through most departments soon after that. It was not so very different from Glasstone’s tome in general scope, but it was more concise and thoroughly modern in its approach. Walter maintained that forward-looking view in the subsequent editions. By 1972 it was into its fourth edition and was being published in eight languages. I think it is fair to say that Walter’s scientific reputation rested more on that textbook and his highly praised biography of Erwin Schrödinger, rather than on his research work, although that too was wide-ranging and quite effective.

He took a Fulbright and a Guggenheim fellowship to Bristol University in the UK in 1950/51, where he did some work on the rate of oxidation of metallic copper and nickel surfaces. He continued those studies when he joined the University of Indiana at Bloomington in 1952. Returning to his teaching mode, Walter wrote a little book called Seven solid states: an introduction to thechemistry and physics of solids (New York: Benjamin, 1967).

In the 1960s his interests returned to the study of biologically interesting molecules. When he took up the Chair of Phycical Chemistry at Sydney in 1974, Walter continued his biochemically oriented research and began the study of the structure of certain proteins which are important for the development of the nervous system. He recruited a very energetic “post-doc” called George Mentz, and between the two of them and a number of graduate students they turned out a string of papers on the properties of myelin basic protein using what is called the NMR technique. The University of Sydney had some quite good instruments at the time. NMR stands for nuclear magnetic resonance (what is now in medical parlance called magnetic resonance imaging – note that the nasty epithet “nuclear” has been dropped from the title so as not to frighten the natives -, but these ones were designed for the study of molecules rather than whole tissues).

When he retired from the University of Sydney in 1983 he returned to his native USA (and to Bloomington, Indiana), where he was appointed Adjunct Professor, and then set about a vigorous search for material for his definitive biography of Erwin Schrödinger (b. Vienna, 1887), who was the founding father of the wave theory of quantum mechanics. This is the basis for the understanding of the chemical bond (and a great deal more besides). Walter and his wife Pat set out on a series of lengthy trips to England, Ireland and Central Europe to gather firsthand information on Schrödinger’s life and loves. The result was Schrödinger: life and thought, which appeared to wide acclaim in 1989. The New York Review of Books noted that “it surpasses even The Double Helix by James Watson in its examination of the most visceral drives of a great scientist”. Walter had done a great job in digging up some revealing information about Schrödinger’s unusual approach to creative activity – the sort more usually associated with creative artists than with dour scientists, no matter how creative.

Schrödinger left Nazi Germany in the late 1930s intending to move to the USA, but his attempts to immigrate were aborted when the US authorities refused to allow him to bring both his wives with him on equal terms. There were, no doubt, ways around the impasse, but it seems that the Irish, of all people, were prepared to accept this rather unusual arrangement without question and so, at the behest of the Irish Premier, Eamon de Valera, Schrödinger became the leading light in a special Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin. There he wrote, among other things, a little booklet called What is life?, which contained the essence of his notions about biology. That book was to inspire a whole generation of physical scientists after World War II to enter the field of biophysics. The most significant result of that was probably the establishment of the structure of DNA and the subsequent development of the field of molecular biology.

Like most professional scientists, Walter Moore’s lifetime contribution consisted of many small bricks which went towards the construction of the massive structure which is modern physical science. He was more ambitious than most in seeking to carry the special techniques and insights of the physical sciences into the biological area. But it was in his two major works, one an undergraduate text and the other an exposition of a great life, that he made his most impressive contributions.



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