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Q&A With Thomas Beck, Chemistry & Physics

Breaking down complex topics is nothing new for Thomas Beck, professor of chemistry and physics.

Date: 1/16/2007
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Breaking down complex topics is nothing new for Thomas Beck, professor of chemistry and physics.

There's a fresh look at an old theory, however, in Beck's new statistical mechanics book, "The Potential Distribution Theorem and Models of Molecular Solutions."

Beck shares some insight into how he accomplished that goal with co-authors Michael E. Paulaitis, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and Ohio Eminent Scholar at Ohio State University, and Lawrence R. Pratt of the Theoretical Chemistry and Molecular Physics Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The book was published by Cambridge University Press.

Q) The book description on Amazon relates that your book simplifies a very complex subject by using “down-to-earth presentations of molecular theory.” How important, and/or hard, was it for you and your co-authors to simplify the topic and at the same time, challenge students who'll use the text?

A) The subject of the book is advanced, and it covers statistical mechanics of liquids. We tried to take this complex subject and bring it to an understandable level by discussing the physical systems (like water) in as clear a way as possible. We always kept an eye on the physical principles, not just mathematics.

Q) Have many other authors taken on this type of text, and how successful were they?

A) There are many, many books on statistical mechanics and the theory of liquids. Our book is unique in that it applies a new theory to the problem, the potential distribution theorem (PDT), and we use this theory to discuss important practical cases like aqueous solutions. The techniques developed here are very useful and I think the book will have a long-term impact over time.


Thomas Beck's latest book was published by Cambridge University Press.

Q) Along those lines, how did the book come about, how long was it in the making and what type of feedback are you getting from colleagues and students?

A) About seven years ago, I wrote up some notes on using the PDT to derive some of the common equations in physical chemistry. I talked with Lawrence Pratt, wondering if this might make a good Journal of Chemical Education article. He said, "Let's set our sights higher!" And that's how it all started. We have gotten positive feedback from some researchers around the world, but the book just came out in September, so it is a bit early to tell. We have not seen any reviews of the book yet.

Q) Tell us a little, too, about the collaboration and your co-authors, and your history with them – did you work with either of them during your time at Los Alamos?

A) Yes, I was a postdoc at Los Alamos from 1987 to 1989. I worked with Jimmie Doll there, but Lawrence Pratt was in the same group, and I became friends with him then. I admire his work a lot, and my research has drifted towards his work over the years. Mike Paulaitis is Lawrence's longtime collaborator, and of course I have gotten to know him and his work over the years too.

Q) What types of student will benefit most from this book? And judging from those you meet in your classes and work here at UC, how high is interest in your area of research?

A) There is high interest in the study of biophysical systems, like proteins and DNA. The theories developed in our book are highly relevant to these systems. The book is tough and stimulating, and will appeal to the student who likes a challenge. For somebody willing to work through the exercises in the book, they will gain a deeper understanding of statistical mechanics and liquids. The book is definitely a challenge though, not for the faint of heart.

Q) How did writing this book fit into your busy schedule, and how rewarding is such an effort for you? And what type of support have you had at UC, in terms of publication?

A) It took four years total to write the book, and it was deeply rewarding, especially working with Lawrence Pratt. Lawrence is truly one of the world's top scientists in this area, and I learned a great deal. At times it was difficult to find the time, but honestly, this is the fun part of my job, as opposed to grant writing, etc.

Q) Finally: Looking back at the texts you used as a budding scientist, how does what you and your co-authors produced stack up in how overall knowledge of the subject matter has progressed since your undergrad days? Is your book cutting-edge for its time?

A) This is an interesting question which I have thought about often. I remember in the early days of my work as a scientist, seeing books like this one and looking at them with wonder and amazement. That is what caught my attention way back as an undergrad – to see that you could describe beautiful nature with mathematics.

If I had seen this book even when I started grad school I would have thought wow, how interesting, and I would have tried to work through it, and I'm sure I would have had troubles. Now to see that I have contributed to such an effort is a deep satisfaction. It is kind of surprising to look back over the years and see what has happened.

To any energetic student, you may be amazed at what you can accomplish if you stick to something you love for a long time. This may sound quite arrogant, but I think this book provides a really fresh, new look at an old theory, and I think it is one of the better efforts in the last couple of decades.

I did contribute heavily to the book, but the previous statement largely is admiration for Lawrence Pratt's work on this. It is the kind of book that people will find fresh results in 10 years from now, and I'm very happy about that.

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