jpople.jpgSir John Anthony Pople, a Nobel laureate and knight of the British Empire, died on March 15 from liver cancer. He was 78.
Born in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, England, Pople developed a passion for mathematics when he was 12 years old. He reveled in algebraic equations and read calculus books he found in trashcans.
Pople attended Cambridge University, where he earned a doctorate in mathematics in 1951. The following year, he envisioned a plan to develop mathematical models to study molecules. With these models, scientists could determine theoretical outcomes without performing physical experiments.
Pople taught mathematics at Cambridge, and served as the head of the physics department at the National Physical Laboratory near London, but yearned to spend more time doing research in quantum chemistry rather than administrative paperwork. So he moved to the United States in 1964, and took a teaching position at Carnegie Tech, which later become Carnegie-Mellon University. For two decades, Pople educated students on chemical physics while working on a computer program that would predict the properties of molecules. He joined the faculty of Northwestern University in 1993, and continued his research.
In 1998, Pople shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Australian Walter Kohn of the University of California-Santa Barbara. Kohn won for his development of density-functional theory, which simplifies the mathematical description of the bonding between atoms. Pople was cited for creating computer programs that test the chemical structure and details of matter.
One such program, Gaussian-70, has been used by thousands of scientists and universities. Enhanced with Kohn’s density-functional theory, the program helps scientists create computer models of chemical reactions that are difficult or impossible to recreate in the laboratory. It has been used to study interstellar matter based on telescope measurements, how pollutants react with the ozone layer and how certain drugs can be used to fight HIV.
Pople won Israel’s Wolf Prize in chemistry and was named an Officer of the Legion of Honor by France. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 2002 for his contributions to science.