How Professor Lipscomb inspired Peaco

Peaco Todd’s special duty at recent Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies was to accompany Nobel laureate William Lipscomb. Peaco has written some thoughts triggered by Bill’s recent death at the age of 91.  (She and Professor Lipscomb are pictured here on the cover of the special Professor Lipscomb issue of the Annals of Improbable Research.) Her essay, which appears on the web site Care2, begins:

The Importance of Making Mistakes

Recently I attended a memorial service for someone who had become, for me, both a friend and an inspiration.  Dr. William Lipscomb received the 1976 Nobel Prize in chemistry for “studies that were the first to explain the chemistry of the element boron and, in particular, those exotic combinations of boron and hydrogen called boranes” (Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times).  I knew him as Bill — my special laureate in the annual Ig Nobel Award ceremony where I perform on stage as a “minor domo.”

Bill was, without question, a superb scientist — he won his Nobel Prize alone, not as part of a team, which is quite rare — and a gifted teacher; two of his students went on to win their own Nobels.  His musical abilities were notable; he played the clarinet with the skill of a professional.  Above all, Bill was a great humanist and a very wise man.  At his memorial service, among the accolades and fond recollections, one story, told by a former graduate student, took me by surprise.

Eric Gouaux talked about his years of studying with “the Colonel,” as Bill, channeling his Kentucky roots, was affectionately known.  Gouaux recalled talking with Bill about his decision to study chemistry.  Why chemistry?  Bill replied that once he decided to follow his science bliss, rather than pursue a career as a clarinetist, he figured he would take up physics.  “But then,” Bill said, “I discovered that I couldn’t make mistakes fast enough in physics.”

He couldn’t make mistakes fast enough in physics.  But he was able make mistakes fast enough in chemistry, so chemistry it was…