Ingenious: The Joy of Research

Rudolph A. Marcus’ theories on electron-transfer reactions in chemical systems won him the Nobel Prize

At Illinois, Rudolph A. Marcus shifted his research focus from experimental to theoretical. (Image courtesy of UIAA)
Rudolph A. Marcus’ theories on electron-transfer reactions in chemical systems won him the Nobel Prize

Rudolph A. Marcus’ world changed forever when he garnered the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1992. The honor “was an order of magnitude bigger than anything I had experienced—maybe two orders of magnitude,” says the former U of I chemistry professor.

As a Nobel laureate, Marcus received many invitations to splashy events, including one that not only drew other Nobel Prize winners, but celebrities such as Johnny Cash, basketball star Julius “Dr. J” Irving and football legend Herschel Walker. In addition, there was a bizarre side to fame. Strangers would approach Marcus for a share of the prize money, such as one man who feared the FBI was after him and wanted $400 million.

Marcus says he wishes there wasn’t so much hype surrounding big prizes because he prefers the pure joy of research. Born in Montreal, he came to the U.S. to pursue this joy in 1949 as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina. That year, he also got married, and he recalls scrambling to turn in a report to the Office of Naval Research with the help of his bride-to-be, Laura.

“In fact, into the wee hours of the morning, she was typing this report,” Marcus says. “This was the wee hours of our wedding day!”

That report would eventually become known as the RRKM theory, with the “M” denoting his name. The theory addressed unimolecular reaction rates—and it put Marcus on the map. He later became famous for his own theory, which explains the rate at which an electron can move or jump from one chemical species to another. The Marcus theory has been used to describe a range of biological and chemical processes, including photosynthesis and corrosion.

Marcus continued his landmark research after joining the U of I faculty in 1964. With its world-class chemistry department, Illinois was able to lure him away from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he had conducted research since 1951. He says Urbana-Champaign also offered a much better place for his three children to grow up, and he even “grew to love the soybeans and corn. We were delighted to go there.”

At Illinois, Marcus shifted his focus from experimental to theoretical research. As he explains it, his modus operandi was connecting the dots between various experimental and theoretical results to form a new theory.

Marcus remained at the U of I until 1978, when he moved to the California Institute of Technology. Today, he is still at Caltech and closing in on his 100th birthday in 2023. And he still prefers the science over the hype.

“What I’ve enjoyed so much is coming across a problem and trying to obtain an answer when maybe I wasn’t even clear what direction to go,” he says. “This is the guiding light, the crux that makes this life in science interesting.”

Sources: Interview with Rudolph A. Marcus by James J. Bohning, Caltech, June 20, 1991; and interview with Rudolph A. Marcus by Shirley K. Cohen, Caltech, Oral History Project, December 1993.