As an undergraduate, the names Herbert Brown and Saul Winstein meant nothing more to me than two chemists who, long ago, were involved in a debate over the structure of an obscure chemical species called the 2-norbornyl carbocation. Another key figure in this story was George A. Olah, but it must have been a particularly obscure topic to me at that time, judging from the amount of red ink that I found looking back at my tutorial script. It was the first time I had come across Olah, but it was certainly not the last. His pioneering work on the low-temperature study of positively charged hydrocarbon species by nuclear magnetic resonance consisted of key experiments in clarifying the Brown-Winstein debate, which probably did more than anything else to bring his work in this area to the attention of chemists worldwide.
Positively charged transient species in chemical reactions, known as "carbocation intermediates", had been postulated years earlier in an effort to rationalise experimental results and as a basis to understand the mechanisms of organic transformations. For the first time, Olah's experiments could be used to "see" and study these normally short-lived species. Indeed, so key was Olah's contribution in this area that it was specifically mentioned in the citation for his 1994 Nobel prize.
Throughout my subsequent career I have repeatedly come across other aspects of Olah's work, ranging from hydrocarbon chemistry to his work on fuel cells and species containing hyper-coordinated carbon atoms. It is perhaps only after reading this book, however, that the full significance of Olah's contribution to organic chemistry has been brought home.
He was brought up in Budapest during the 1930s and 40s, and then emigrated first to Canada and then to the United States, following the path of several other scientists of his generation. The struggle he faced in his formative years as a postwar researcher under Zemplen at the Technical University in Budapest must have been what marked him out as having the insight and mettle to become one of the leading organic chemists of the second half of the 20th century.
This book is as much a scientific as a personal autobiography of Olah's life. For the non-chemist, the description of Olah's research will be pretty hard going, on the other hand it makes this book highly recommended reading for those wishing to read Olah's scientific reflections. Having recently read the autobiography of Carl Djerassi, another important émigré chemist who went to the US, I found Olah's autobiography comparatively dry. My personal preference in this type of book is to read more of the life and stories surrounding the researcher, rather than a personalised digest of their research results. Perhaps one day an autobiography by a leading scientist will help me understand what it is that makes men such as Olah "tick". But on this score, other than finding out that he has had a long and happy family life, sadly his book left me none the wiser.
Andrew Boa is lecturer in organic chemistry, University of Hull.
A Life of Chemistry: Autobiographical Reflections of a Nobel Prize Winner
Author - George A Olah
ISBN - 0 471 15743 0
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £.50
Pages - £7