Stanford Today Edition: November/December, 1996 Section: On Campus WWW: Fourth Rock from the Sun


Fourth Rock from the Sun

Mars discovery puts professor in spotlight

By Janet Basu

THE AUTOGRAPH seekers were the big surprise.

Since the news broke in August that Richard Zare had played a role in the discovery of possible life on Mars, he's gotten used to clamoring reporters, endless television appearances and the occasional request to testify before Congress.

But when flight attendants lined up for his John Hancock on a recent trip from Washington, he was floored.

"Imagine this happening to me," says the professor of chemistry, both amused and bemused.

Zare's celebrity results from the fact that he is one of the few scientists who have held a chunk of rock from Mars and looked inside to detect signs of something that once might have been alive. In the days after his lab's role was made public, Zare may have become the Mars meteorite's most recognizable spokesperson: the enthusiastic scholar with the salt-and-pepper goatee who told millions of television viewers, "We may all be Martians."

Though the research in his lab provided a key piece of evidence, Zare does not claim to be an expert on meteorites or Mars. And none of the nine scientists who contributed to the work claims that their findings so far can offer iron-clad proof that tiny micro-organisms thrived in cracks of rock on the Red Planet billions of years ago.

But to friends, his reaction to the possibility of that life is vintage Zare.

"We now don't know how life began, and that's fascinating," Zare told Jim Lehrer of PBS' NewsHour, in one of the TV appearances that brought on his new fame. If primitive life did evolve on ancient Mars, it could have traveled on meteorites to "seed" ancient Earth, he said. "But if life evolved independently on Mars, as well as Earth, then it is likely to be ubiquitous in the universe."

Such a finding would change our understanding of our place in the cosmos, Zare says: "It's almost like the Copernican Revolution, when science overturned the belief that the sun and planets rotate around the Earth."

Given an audience, colleagues say, Zare can't resist sharing his delight in the wonders of the natural world - and throwing in a lesson about the value of investing in basic research.

Zare told Congress that the Mars research was "one of the most exciting and humbling activities I have had the privilege to be associated with," and noted that it rested on a long line of basic work from other scientists, and on the American people's willingness to back that basic science.

"Dick is totally immersed, obsessive, quivering, ebullient about science - and he's the same about teaching," says friend and mentor Dudley Herschbach (Stanford '54, MS '55).

Herschbach, a Harvard professor, calls Zare "a towering figure in the field of chemical physics." At 56, Zare, the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics, has won major honors, including the National Medal of Science. He is renowned for bringing the laser to chemistry, to find out how molecules dance, break apart and recombine during chemical reactions.

John Brauman, former chair of the chemistry department, says that Zare's research has been "phenomenal in its breadth." He holds nearly 50 patents, and has helped to develop many practical tools for chemical analysis. And his research in a field called molecular dynamics has advanced what Brauman calls "the science of fundamental things."

He also is one of the nation's most influential scientists.

As chair of the National Science Board, Zare oversees the National Science Foundation, which funds much of the nation's basic research. He is also a member of the Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

And he never stops enjoying the fun of discovering the world. Generations of students recall the immortal glowing-kosher-pickle experiment - Zare's demonstration that sodium can be used to generate light. Physics Today devoted a cover story to his ruminations on the bubbles in beer. And he once planted tongue in cheek and recruited friends to test a theory on the effervescence of champagne.

Zare's enthusiasm makes him a dedicated teacher, working tirelessly for reforms in science education. Each year he and fellow chemistry Professor James Collman redesign their introductory course for majors. Several years ago, Zare and his wife, Susan, an adviser to undergraduates, developed a course in chemistry for "fuzzies" - non-science majors.

And postdoctoral fellow Maria Dulay says Zare's lab is noted for both the independence that he allows his research teams and the attention he devotes to students: "As busy as he is, we can walk into his office any time."

Zare's passions and obligations are "enough for three lives," Herschbach notes. Friends and family warn him about overwork, and he admits to being driven. But he says, only half regretfully, "It's so much easier to take on new projects than let them go."

Some of that driven quality goes back to family expectations, he says. "I remember vividly at the age of 4, being told by my grandmother that I was going to be judged," he says. There was a sense that he was a representative of the Jewish people sojourning in America.

His fascination with nature emerged early. As a Cleveland kindergartner he was suspicious of the silly answers that teachers gave when he asked what held the stars in the sky. By age 9 he was taking the bus alone to the library to look up the answers.

By junior high, he was the terror of science class, lugging books to school to argue with an inexperienced teacher who claimed to know the answers to questions that scientists said were still in doubt. Their daily confrontations drove the teacher to confess to young Richard's parents that he hated the boy's guts.

In desperation, the school principal engineered a scholarship to Cleveland's elite University School for Boys. There Zare blossomed, and went on to earn a B.A. in chemistry and physics at Harvard in 1961.

He completed his doctorate at Harvard in 1964 and was on the faculty at MIT, the University of Colorado and Columbia before coming to Stanford in 1977. He and his wife have three grown daughters.

Zare earned his graduate degree in Herschbach's lab at the time when a handful of scientists were looking for the first time at the energy and motion of individual molecules as they combine to make a chemical reaction. It took a certain spirit of daring for a grad student to join the lab at that time, Herschbach recalls - "we were known as the lunatic fringe." Years later, Herschbach and two others won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Zare took the idea in a new direction. He was one of the first to find a practical use for a new device, the laser. Over the years he has developed a number of ways to use lasers and other energy sources to make molecules light up or break apart. Then, in the next stage he devises ways to analyze what the molecules have done.

Those two steps are essential to Zare's approach to questions in fields ranging from chemistry and physics to genetics and neurobiology.

Currently, some of the 25 researchers in the "Zarelab" - actually three laboratories - have developed a gene probe that can quickly detect a single small mutation along a strand of DNA. Others have been working on one of chemistry's most elusive goals - a way to use the intensely focused energy of lasers to control chemical reactions precisely.

All of this allows Zare to keep immersing himself in new enterprises. His students say his enthusiasm for each one is contagious - and his ability to keep up with so many scientific fields is intimidating. To Zare, each new experiment is a chance to be 9 years old again, on the way to the library to discover new worlds.

He points to a rash of recent discoveries that overturn many long- established assumptions about earthborne organisms. "I grew up learning that oxygen and sunlight were required for life. Now it turns out you don't need either. There are organisms that eat hydrogen and spit out methane, or live miles underground, or live at temperatures above the boiling point of water.

"Now, as a chemist, I'm wondering how many other types of life are there? I'm even wondering if we could make 'life' - something that is self- assembling and self-organizing and self-replicating."

The search is on. "I don't know how to experiment on these questions yet," Zare says. "But I'd like to try." ST