Pioneer of Laser Technique in Molecule Study Wins Welch Award, Houston Chronicle

Pioneer of laser technique in molecule study wins Welch Award


Copyright 1999 Houston Chronicle Science Writer

A Stanford University chemist best known for analyzing the rock that
provided evidence microbial life may once have existed on Mars is the
1999 recipient of the Welch Award.

Richard Zare, 59, who will be named the winner today, has pioneered
laser techniques that detect and identify molecules in unimaginably
small concentrations. The techniques are now common practice in labs
around the world.

“Richard Zare’s contributions have made a difference in the way we think
about many important areas of chemistry,” said Richard J.V. Johnson,
Chronicle publisher and Welch Foundation chairman. “He’s been called the
master laser chemist of our time, with his work combining the pursuit of
basic understanding with highly practical analytic applications.”

The Welch Award, one of chemistry’s most prestigious prizes, goes to
chemists whose lifetime contributions have had a positive influence on

Zare’s selection will be announced today at a luncheon in Palo Alto,
Calif. He will receive the award’s $300,000 prize and a gold medallion
at a banquet in Houston in October.

He used laser techniques to determine organic material in the Martian
rock weren’t scattered randomly in the meteorite but were clumped
together in globules of carbonate. The reaction to the analysis thrust
Zare in the spotlight with media from Ted Koppel to a documentary
director who wanted to film him bathed in an eerie red glow. (Zare

More than three years later, Zare still awaits a definitive verdict on
the rock, saying it has been neither proved or disproved. He said that
scientists need that kind of “schizophrenic personality — to believe,
disbelieve and suspend belief at the same time.”

Zare’s work involves a lot more than Martian rocks, of course. Known as
a Renaissance Man by colleagues, he has applied investigative techniques
to practical problems in chemical reaction dynamics, remote sensing,
trace chemical analysis and clusters of planetary dust.

“I’m insatiably curious — and something of a frustrated inventor,” Zare
said. “The combination tends to lead me in a lot of directions. But
everything I’m interested in starts with chemistry and it’s all much
more connected than people expected.”

Zare has been an important figure in chemistry since the 1960s. He first
presented the theory of how pulses of light could break a molecule apart
in ways that would help define its shape and orientation. Later, once
lasers were introduced, he pioneered putting the theory into practice.

His emphasis on “seeing” molecules, cells and chemical reactions in ways
never before possible led to techniques for detecting genetic defects,
quantifying trace elements in the atmosphere, measuring electrical
signals and investigating the biochemistry of memory.

He said he still wants to find the chemical basis of how we think, how
nonlife becomes life and “how certain chemical reactions occur to get
what we want.”

Zare said the Welch award was particularly gratifying because “going
hither and yon in different directions usually is a deterrent to being
recognized.” He said the award “means the things I’ve been doing

The Houston-based Welch Foundation, established in 1954 with a bequest
from Houston oil man Robert A. Welch, has awarded more than $381 million
in research grants to advance the understanding of chemicals and their reactions.