“A Chemist’s Journey: From Brooklyn to Brooklyn” Dr. Eli Pearce

The H. Martin Friedman Lecture
Brooklyn College

[SLIDE—A Chemist's Journey]

Thank you. It’s a great honor for anyone to be invited to give the Friedman lecture, but this is an especially wonderful moment for me. [NAME] mentioned that last year I served as President of the American Chemical Society. When you serve as President of the Society, you are not only the head of the world’s largest scientific society; you are also a kind of worldwide ambassador of chemistry. So I had the terrific opportunity to deliver speeches all over the country and the world to wonderful audiences of famous people. One of my favorites, believe it or not, was doing National Chemistry Week demonstrations for students at Brandywine Springs Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware.

But I’ve got to tell you I’m more excited about this speech today than anything since then. And the reason is pretty simple: it’s great to come home and it is wonderful to talk to people who are a lot like me.

Now I can see from the expressions on some of your faces that you’re perhaps a little bit skeptical of what I just said. I can even imagine many of you are thinking, “How can he say he’s like me? The guy’s old enough to be my grandfather.” Or maybe, “His skin’s a different shade than mine.” Or, “his accent is different.”

Of course, we’re not identical. No two individuals are. But bear with me. I think you’ll see we’re a lot more alike than appears on first impression.

The title of my talk is “A Chemist’s Journey.” For me, that journey began right here.


I was born in Brooklyn’s Brownsville/East New York section. When I was young we lived and went to school in the Williamsburg/Bedford-Stuyvesant area. I first studied chemistry at Boys High, thanks to a great teacher, Mr. Catska.

I’d bet that some of your parents weren’t born in Brooklyn or New York, or even in this country. Mine weren’t either. Like a lot of families in this borough-- 70 years ago and now-- they were immigrants: My folks came from Eastern Europe. And they didn’t come here with much. My father never went to school and my mother went only as far as the sixth grade. The college had then and still does have students with parents from all over the world---makes it a special place. My folks were proud that I went to college; I was proud; and you should feel proud too of what you have accomplished.

And, I’ll bet you, we’re alike in another way too. All of you are science or technology students, and a lot of you are chemistry majors. So we’re united by our fascination with science.

Does anybody ever ask you how you got interested in science? Maybe you’ve got a story like mine:


My parents bought me a chemistry set, Gilbert chemistry set that was popular when I was young. It came in a blue box. I would close the door to my bedroom and go to work. With that chemistry set, I was able to make all kinds of odd noises and smells, some of which, on occasion, drove my parents crazy! That was fun.

The other thing I tell people is that I got into science because I love a mystery. Scientific research has all the fun and excitement of a great detective story.


You’re presented a mystery—how come I get that bubbling reaction when I pass a current through that liquid? Then you have to assemble all the clues, put together all the evidence, and gradually—step by step—find the answer.

It wouldn’t surprise me if some of you were detective fans, too. In my day, my favorite was a great old radio show, “The Shadow.”


I remember it came on every Sunday night, and was sponsored by Blue Coal—


those were the days when a coal truck came around every Sunday to run coal down a chute in the cellar so you could heat the house and water. We had an iceman, too, who delivered blocks of ice that we stored in an icebox, before there were refrigerators.

You don’t have coal or ice trucks in Brooklyn anymore, and the detectives are on television instead of the radio. But some things are the same. What happens in “CSI,” one of the most popular shows on TV?


Every week there is a murder mystery to solve, and a team of researchers have to observe and then assemble all the clues, put together a potential scenario, and gradually—step by step—find out what happened and how. I like the show because it shows how Chemistry helps solve real life problems---or crimes in this case.

Now, most chemists and most scientists don’t solve crimes for a living, and we can’t all be as gorgeous as the people on CSI. But every scientist—you, me, all of us—can experience the excitement of solving a problem that will make life a little bit better for everybody.

My own research has been focused on polymers.


Polymers are substances made of giant molecules formed by uniting simple molecules or monomers. As a result of their high molecular weight, polymers have useful physical characteristics such as high viscosity, elasticity, and strength. They are found everywhere: inside your body in the form of DNA proteins; in the clothing you wear such as wool and cotton and your shoes; in nail polish, contact lenses, wood; in plastics, nylon, and man-made rubber. They are interesting to work with because you can keep coming up with new ones all the time…the possibilities are endless.

One of the mysteries I’ve investigated is why do polymers burn the way they do when you apply heat and oxygen to them?


Understanding why things burn, and how to prevent them from burning has been a question that has intrigued scientists since ancient times. How polymers burn is and especially an important question today, because polymers are everywhere. We use them more than we use metal, for example. And polymers can do a lot of damage when they burn. Some of them produce poisonous fumes for example,

My research has focused on the way polymers catch fire—their flammability—breaking the process down into tiny steps and analyzing the chemical changes that occur at each of these steps. My goal has been to help design “smarter” polymers, perhaps by discovering additives that will keep the polymer bonds strong, but make them harder to ignite. That could lead to more fireproof materials for firemen’s clothing, homes and cars, or at the very least decrease the likelihood of fires, and the damage they do. It makes me feel good to be able to contribute to fire safety. Chemistry provides lots of opportunities like this.

I’ve been talking about some things we have in common. But I’ll admit there are some differences, too.

I am just a bit older than most of you. In fact some of the ten grandchildren my wife and I love so much are here in the audience. My generation not only went to college without the Internet and cell phones, we didn’t have VCRs or even fax machines, if you can imagine that. Before you write us off though, we have learned how to use them!


So when I was thinking about what I would say today, I tried to take myself back 50 years, to when I was right here studying chemistry at Brooklyn College. I asked myself what I would have liked to hear from someone who had been there, done that.

Here it goes; I hope it is what you’d expect to hear. . . .


For the full text of this speech, please e-mail jeff@porroLLC.com