Rod Panos on Leo Brewer: A critical moment

Portrait of Rod Panos.

Several big events colored the year 1969. Richard Nixon enjoyed his first year in office. An unusually large rock concert garnered nationwide headlines from a small New York town called Woodstock. Governor Ronald Reagan called up the California National Guard to quell riots in Berkeley… and in April of that year, the Department of Chemistry at the University of California scheduled an oral Qualifying Exam to consider my suitability for the Ph.D. program in chemistry.

I [Rod Panos] remember that last incident quite well. I wore for the occasion the only suit I owned. Neil Bartlett, chemistry department chairman, invited Leo Brewer, George Jura and Clayton Heathcock of chemistry, and an M. Pomerantz from the Department of Physics, to attend the exercise and decide my fate as a potential Ph.D. candidate.

Just before 2 p.m. on the afternoon of April 27, I left my desk occupying one corner of the laboratory overseen by Charles Harris on the fifth floor of Latimer Hall, walked down the hallway, descended a flight of stairs and waited in the small seminar room I found at 444 Latimer. At precisely 2 p.m., Brewer and Heathcock met me there. I stood, they sat. Professor Pomerantz joined the group within a few minutes and we all awaited the arrival of Jura.

After some time, Leo Brewer glanced at his watch and, wearing a somewhat annoyed expression, asked the others if they thought it appropriate to begin without George Jura. Meeting assent, he began the proceedings by introducing himself and his fellow committee members.

I found myself in awe of Leo Brewer. The eye patch he wore gave him an air of mystery and, among those present, his was the only name familiar to me. Pomerantz came from physics and Clayton Heathcock had only recently joined the chemistry faculty, but the text over which I labored to learn thermodynamics had Leo Brewer’s name on it.

Portrait of Leo Brewer.

Knowing that committee members should have all seen the brief explanation contained in the invitation memorandum, Leo Brewer asked if I would begin by explaining to the committee the basis by which I had chosen to conduct the C13 NMR study about which I intended to speak.

I remember being slightly tempted to admit that I had not chosen it at all. Charles Harris had given me the assignment because a brand new Varian HA-100 NMR spectrometer sat down on the D-level of Hildebrand Hall, and he wanted to use it. Chuck Harris had himself joined the department only a year or so earlier and, although he later came to prefer the more formal name of Charles, he then encouraged his students to call him Chuck.

Discarding that line of explanation, I began to describe the anomalously low magnetic susceptibility of copper acetate below room temperature, explaining how a measurement of the chemical shift of the C13 NMR resonance frequency for bridging acid carbons might throw some light onto reasons for the compound’s odd magnetic behavior.

I had only just started elaborating the theoretical basis for believing we could accomplish such a measurement in solution when the door burst open and George Jura entered the room to stop my explanation in mid-sentence. Seizing a chair that rested against the table between the committee and me, he turned it around, sat straddling the chair, grabbed a loose copy of my summary document and scanned it quickly to remind himself of the discussion topic. Without missing a beat, he then pulled the cigarette dangling from his lips, held it between the two finger stubs of his one hand, pointed it at me and asked, “What would you expect to see happen if those two metal atoms were zinc instead of copper?”

The question came at me like a cannon shot. I froze. For a very long moment, my head refused to function. A millennium or two passed before I began to ask myself what this man could possibly mean by throwing a completely new atom into my carefully prepared thinking. I had not studied the properties of zinc acetate. I had studied copper acetate. What kind of question was he asking? What can I possibly say about zinc? Perspiration began to soak through my undershirt.

Although I cannot say what emotion showed, I’m sure the word ‘fear’ might have entered the minds of those who could see my face. That’s when Leo Brewer looked steadily at me through his one good eye and, speaking slowly and calmly, said, “or nickel.”

I stared at him for a moment. Not being as intimately familiar with the Periodic Table as either he or George Jura, I required that moment before I realized, Of course, each one sits on either side of copper. Now … what does that mean? I asked myself before launching into a bit of thinking-out-loud. “Well,” I began, “If one less electron were present, then…”

I remember thinking as I left the qualifying committee alone in Room 444 to decide my fate that I was very lucky to have had Leo Brewer on that committee. His little hint made all the difference. Without it, I’m not at all sure I would have seen the direction of George Jura’s thinking. With it, I managed to salvage my candidacy and go on to further study at Cal.

Today I lament the fact that I never sought out Leo Brewer to thank him for the boost he gave me at a critical moment. I should have done so. The opportunity to connect with people like him is one of the reasons the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley maintains a reputation as one of the world’s premier institutions for the study of chemistry.

ROD PANOS (undergrad B.A. ’68, Chem graduate Ph.D. ’73, Chem) Married Jeanne Marie Volstorff (B.A. ’70, Soc. Sci.) in 1972. After graduation, drove across country to Dayton, OH, to gain some experience in a foreign land. Worked there for the Air Force Materials Laboratory in the field of materials science and nondestructive evaluation.

Two children and five years later, began research work in the development of structural composite materials at the Rockwell International Science Center in Thousand Oaks, CA, where Jeanne began teaching school. With children off to college, Jeanne and Rod moved back to the Bay Area where he directed efforts in product development for ALZA Corporation in Palo Alto. Now retired and living in Redwood City.