Hauptman, Herbert A. (1917- )

views updated

Hauptman, Herbert A. (1917- )

American mathematician and biophysicist

In the early 1950s, Herbert A. Hauptman and former classmate, Jerome Karle, developed a mathematical system, usually referred to as the "direct method," for the interpretation of data on atomic structure collected through x-ray crystallography. The system, however, did not come into general use until the 1960s, and it was only in 1985 that Hauptman and Karle were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their accomplishment.

Hauptman and Karle developed a complex series of mathematical formulas, relying heavily on probability theory, which made it possible to correctly infer the phases from the data that was recorded on the photographic film. Their new mathematical system came to be known as the determination of molecular structure by "direct method." They demonstrated the workability of their new technique in 1954 by calculating by hand, in collaboration with researchers at the United States Geological Survey, the atomic structure of the mineral colemanite.

Herbert Aaron Hauptman was born in New York City on February 14, 1917, the son of Israel Hauptman, an Austrian immigrant who worked as a printer, and Leah (Rosenfeld) Hauptman. He grew up in the Bronx and graduated from Townsend Harris High School. At the City College of New York, he majored in mathematics and received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1937. Karle, his later collaborator, also graduated from City College the same year. Hauptman went on to complete a master's degree in mathematics at Columbia University in 1939. He married Edith Citrynell, a schoolteacher, on November 10, 1940; they eventually had two daughters. Hauptman worked for two years as a statistician in the United States Bureau of the Census before serving in the United States Army Air Force from 1942 to 1947. After his period of service ended, Hauptman went to work as a physicist and mathematician at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, remaining there until 1970. While working at the laboratory, he enrolled in the doctoral program in mathematics at the University of Maryland and received his Ph.D. in 1955.

At the Naval Research Laboratory, Hauptman renewed his acquaintance with Karle, who had come to the laboratory in 1946. The two men soon began to work together on the problem of determining molecular structures through the methodology of x-ray crystallography. Most of the work that later led to their joint Nobel Prize was done between 1950 and 1956. A brief monograph, Solution of the Phase Problem, 1. The Centrosymmetric Crystal, was published in 1953 that revealed many of the results of their studies.

The German physicist Max Laue had discovered as far back as 1912 that it was possible to determine the arrangement of atoms within a crystal by studying the patterns formed on a photographic plate by x rays passed through a crystal. Since that time x-ray crystallography had become a standard tool for chemists, physicists, geologists, biologists, and other scientists concerned with determining the atomic structure of substances. X-ray crystallography, for example, had made possible the discovery of the double-helical structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) by molecular biologists Francis Crick, James Watson, and others in the 1950s. The problem with the technique was that interpreting the patterns on the photographic plates was a difficult, laborious, and time-consuming task. The accurate determination of the atomic structure of a single substance could require one or more years of work based upon indirect inferences that often amounted to educated guesswork. The greatest difficulty arose from the fact that while photographic film could record the intensity of the x-ray dots that formed the patterns, it could not record the phases (the minute deviations from straight lines) of the x rays themselves.

Hauptman and Karle's system met with a good deal of skepticism and resistance from the specialists in x-ray crystallography in the 1950s and was largely ignored for about ten years. This was partly due to the fact that most crystallographers of the time lacked the mathematical knowledge and sophistication to make use of the new technique. It also stemmed from the fact that the necessary mathematical calculations themselves were a laborious process. It was the introduction of computers and the development of special programs to deal with the Hauptman-Karle method in the 1960s that finally led to its widespread acceptance and use. The work that originally required months or years to complete could now be done in a matter of hours or, at most, days. By the mid 1980s the atomic structures of approximately 40,000 substances had been determined through use of the direct method, as compared to only some 4,000 determined by other methods in all the years prior to 1970, and some 4,000 to 5,000 new structures were being determined each year.

Hauptman left the Naval Research Laboratory in 1970 to become head of the biophysics laboratory at the Medical Foundation of Buffalo, a small but highly regarded organization specializing in research on endocrinology. He also became professor of biophysical science at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Hauptman served as executive vice president and research director of the Medical Foundation from 1972 to 1985 and president from 1985 onwards. There he worked to perfect the direct method and to extend its use to the study of very large atomic structures. Hauptman has received numerous awards, including the 1985 Nobel Prize in chemistry shared with Karle, the Award in Pure Sciences from the Research Society of America in 1959, and, also with Karle, the A. L. Patterson Memorial Award of the American Crystallography Association in 1984.

See also Atomic theory; Crystals and crystallography; Geochemistry; Industrial minerals; Mineralogy