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A Celebration of Life

William Lipscomb Home Page
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Remembrances of William Lipscomb at Memorial Church, Harvard Yard, Cambridge, MA, Sept. 10, 2011.

Memorial Church, Harvard Yard, exterior view

Memorial Church, Harvard Yard
Public-domain Image courtesy of Wikipedia

  1. Dudley Herschbach. Choosing very challenging problems.
  2. E. J. Corey.  Bill’s wide interests were important for him as a scientific adviser.
  3. Eric Gouaux. Bill’s dream of being a physicist not possible: in physics he could not make mistakes fast enough.
  4. Jim Lipscomb.  Eldest son.  Swingle accident.  Forgiveness.
  5. Stan Ovshinsky.  Bill the riff-ster in science, music, art, and comedy.
  6. Janet Conrad.  Bill’s room was a disaster area.  The Yes-bell Uncle.
  7. Jenna Lipscomb.  No different from anyone else's family. Or so I thought.
  8. Marc Abrahams.  Bill was game for anything, and he could make anything work.
  9. David Lawton. Secret music scholarship.  Bill made those around him better.
  10. Music
  11. MusiciansMusic House Party players and friends of the family.

1.  Dudley Herschbach.  Choosing very challenging problems.

Dudley Herschbach

Dudley HerschbachHarvard chemistry professor.  Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1986.

"I’m glad to welcome you to this Celebration, because it is a celebration.  I’m sure Bill, if he were here would be absolutely delighted with the music we’ve just heard and that we will be hearing.  He’d also be delighted to learn that the speakers will have to emulate some protein folding and unfolding to get from where they are to here [the podium].

My role is to give brief introductions to the speakers.  As you see in the program they will be interspersed with musical performances.  You will hear from the very last speaker, David Lawton, about Bill’s devotion to the Music House Party, and this [celebration] he would think of, I think, as another episode of the Music House Party.  But the speakers between will give us plenty of reasons to appreciate why this is really a celebration.  Of course, we all know the legacy of immense scientific achievement that Bill has given us.

Few can match his earnest and intense devotion to science and his ability by choosing very challenging problems to make major contributions.  But everyone can appreciate the significance of that work and what it means to pursue it and the way Bill Lipscomb did, but there are many other dimensions that you’ll hear about from memories and music today.

I will introduce the speakers in the groups you see in the program, which is to make it brief, and since it takes a while to do the “unfolding” and make your way up here I might suggest the speakers might start moving [early]…. It’s a wonderful collection of speakers.  You’re bound to get a wide range of perspectives of Bill Lipscomb’s life.  Our speakers range in age from 88 to 22.  That, like the music we have here, is a pretty special thing for this kind of event."

2.  E. J. Corey.  Bill’s wide interests were important for him as a scientific adviser.

E. J. Corey

E. J. Corey. Harvard chemistry professor.  Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1990.

Introduction to E. J. Corey by Dudly Hershbach

"Our first speaker, as you see, will be E. J. Corey…. He’s [been] a colleague of Bill’s for more than 50 years, likewise a chemist of immense, indeed epic, accomplishments. 

I heard just a few moments ago a story from E. J. that I have to tell you.  They made many trips together back and forth to Texas to serve on the advisory board of the Welch Foundation.  They sat in adjacent aisle seats and talked back and fourth of course the whole trip.  E. J. said some very interesting things came from those conversations, and in particular there were interesting reactions by the neighbors often.  He mentioned one case of a lady who said how impressed she was with the enthusiasm of you two high-school teachers.  I’m sure Bill enjoyed that as much as E. J. did."

Speech by E. J. Corey

"Thank you very much Dudley.  It is a real honor to be here to celebrate the life of a wonderful human being and a very good friend.

As Dudley mentioned, Bill and I were colleagues, friends, I would say even close colleagues and friends for more than 50 years at Harvard.  In fact we started as faculty members at Harvard within a few days of one another in July of 1959.

We’d known one another before that time, and we’d corresponded, usually corresponded about scientific things, and I’d got to have a very deep respect for Bill as an outstanding structural chemist.  In fact, at that time I was at the University of Illinois, and I lobbied from my lowly, youthful position to get my colleagues interested in hiring Bill from the University of Minnesota.

Bill and I were very close and drawn together in many, many ways, and it’s impossible for me to even give you a brief summary of them all.  It’s hard to compress a half a century into five minutes.  But I’ll start by saying that Bill was a kind of model for me.  We shared the teaching of a new course that was started at Harvard around 1961.  It was a course for hand-picked Harvard undergraduates, Freshmen and Sophomores, that compressed three years of chemistry into two.  Bill taught the first semester, Frank Westheimer the second.  I taught the third, and Bright Wilson taught the fourth semester.  Bill made such a profound impression on the students, and they so admired him as a teacher that it was a big challenge for me to sort of pick up and carry on that relay.  Bill was a really great teacher.  He made things very clear, and I have that on the account from many students, and he was not afraid to teach complicated things to these Freshmen, from quantum theory, to group theory, to structural theory, x-ray crystallography, very advanced subjects, and the students loved it.  Bill had an enthusiasm that was transmitted naturally to those undergraduates, and, I learned later, also to his graduate students and post-doctorals.  It was … unique I thought and something very special to Bill.  Of course he knew what he was teaching backward and forward.  Bill and I did, I think, a pretty good job with that course, as well as [did] the other two members of the faculty.  Out of that class came many, many successful academics and scientists who went in other directions, including two Nobel Prize winners.

Bill had remarkable talents as an administrator.  He was a great chairman of our department from 1963-1966 I believe, and he ran meetings in a very precise, orderly, and business-like way, and everyone pitched in and did what they could to ensure that the department would remain a really true first-rate teaching and research unit.  Bill was always devoted to the department and always cared about keeping it at the very top of its game.

As Dudley mentioned, Bill and I for more than 20 years were members of a scientific advisory board for a foundation in Texas, and we took innumerable plane rides together.  I had other stories about those plane rides that I could tell you, but I think I’ll just tell you one.  As Dudley said, we talked non-stop on those plane trips, and across the aisle there were some amusing comments from our fellow passengers, totally unpredictable usually. 

Bill was one day telling me about his experiences as a graduate student at Caltech with Linus Pauling, and he happened to mention the fun he had playing
[a] softball [variant of baseball: softball pitched overhand from 57.5 feet with 75 feet between bases and hardball rules], and one particular game gave him great pleasure.  It was a game when he played shortstop and single-handedly pulled off a triple play.  I think it was a line-drive to shortstop, who then [got] the runner going from second to third [by stepping on second base], and then [tagged] a runner [from first] who wasn’t really observing what was happening before he went in to second.  So, one of the people in the plane who heard that got up and came back to us and said, “What league did you play in?”  [Bill gives his account of his unassisted triple play here]

Bill was one of the most amazing chemists I’ve ever known, because he had such wide interests.  He followed physical chemistry structural chemistry, structural biology, biochemistry, a certain amount of mechanistic organic chemistry, reaction theory and structural theory, and on top of that he was very interested in cosmology and new developments in physics, and he could go on for hours, talking about things he’d just read.  That breadth of knowledge was very, very important to his success as a scientific adviser to the Welch Foundation. I think Bill probably had a bigger impact on that group than any of the other members.  He did his homework more thoroughly than any of the rest of us and came really well prepared, but beyond that he knew so much about so many things that he was just an invaluable guy [for] the right decisions in many, many cases.

Bill had a lot of interests in many of the things I was doing, and we collaborated over the years on various projects.  I think they were mainly in the area of x-ray crystallography.  But it was a very useful interaction, and of course it’s recorded in the scientific literature.  It was very easy to get Bill interested in a scientific problem, and usually, once he got interested, he really could make a major contribution.

Bill and I also had a common interest in music, so that we could talk about that.

Bill had a series of offices.  After his first office on the third floor of Gibbs, he moved to another office on the second floor.  Then he made a series of moves in the main chemistry building and finally wound up on the third floor, across from my office.  So there, we saw a lot of one another, and we had numerous discussions and conversations, which I think we both enjoyed, and which I found to reveal another side of Bill that was not so easily apparent at first.  He had an intense interest in the future of chemistry and wanted always to find out my impression of where things were going, what the problems were, and what the outlook was.  Bill was very forward looking.  I don’t think he ever looked back, and he believed in Harvard as a great institution, chemistry as a wonderful discipline, and he cared very, very deeply about the future of this place and our department.

I will very much miss Bill.  He was a wonderful, wonderful human being, an outstanding talent, a great friend, and I join with you in remembering him and celebrating the wonderful life that he lived.  Thank you."

Corey's Publications with Lipscomb

Corey, E. J., Cooper, N. J., Canning, W. M., Lipscomb, W. N., and Koetzle, T. F., "Preparation, Unusual Spectral Properties, and Structural Characterization of (Terpyridine) (tetrahydroborato-H,H') Cobalt," Inorganic Chemistry 21, 192-199 (1982).

Schomburg, D., Hopkins, P. B., Lipscomb, W. N., and Corey, E. J., "Total Synthesis of Erythromycins. 6. Facile Transformation of Erythronolide A into a Tricyclic Internal Ketal," J. Org. Chem. 45, 1544-1546 (1980).

3.  Eric Gouaux.  Bill's dream of being a physicist not possible: in physics he could not make mistakes fast enough.

Eric Gouaux

Eric Gouaux. Former student.  Biochemist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Senior Scientist at the Vollum Institute of Oregon Health & Science University.

Introduction to Eric Gouaux by Dudly Hershbach

"Our next speaker will be Eric Gouaux.  He first came to Bill in the 1980s when Eric was an undergraduate and later in graduate work as a Ph.D. [student] at Harvard. 

He’s now a Howard Hughes Investigator, a very special thing, the Oregon Health and Science University.  He works in a field dear to Bill, crystallography and visualization of molecules.  He describes his current research as, “Mapping molecules that ring and run.”  These are neuro-transmitters in our brain and nervous system.  He says, “Neurons need to press each other’s doorbells and get out of there fast.”  Again, I’m sure Bill would like that."

Speech by Eric Gouaux

"The Colonel
Graduate student 1984-1989.
The Colonel’s lab. 
Not Professor, or Dr or William or Bill
It was the Colonel.
Early morning, after lunch, late at night
Yellow post-it notes, on my desk.
“The Colonel stopped by”, signed “The Colonel”

Always around
Questions, queries, comments, critiques, simple suggestions, flashes of insight.
He taught equations
Theories, molecules and mechanisms
Elegant tricks, folksy remedies

One never knew if it was
The genius scientist, gifted musician
layered on the prankster Kentucky boy
Or the other way around

We had Gibbs, it had us.
3 stories of brick, apart from rest
A lab, a house, a home
Experiments, ideas, dreams and fears.
Here we worked, ate, bantered, napped and worked again
It was a shelter, a home, an incubator, a sort of nest
A refuge
Always under the Colonel’s fierce protection

At the beginning he was a mystery
A towering fountain of knowledge and wisdom
Immutable, perfect
But then we learned
He taught us, about science and about himself.
He admonished us - make mistakes!
And to then move on.
His dream, of being a physicist, not possible, he said,
Because he could not make mistakes fast enough.
So chemistry was chosen.
We realized, he is human! 
And from that, we learned,
Make mistakes

And what to do?  He spoke like an archeologist.
It’s where you dig.
And the beauty of his presence
Was that he let us
Find our own places to dig.

And when it was time to leave
Depart from Gibbs
Go out on our own.
He encouraged us, trusted us
more than we trusted ourselves
And in doing so gave us the faith to succeed
Venture out on thin ice
Up steep cliffs
Far out to sea

But it was long after my departure
And then a sorrowful return
For the memorial service of Don Wiley,
The Colonel’s graduate student and chosen successor
It hit me gale force

When the Colonel said, upon acknowledging
The death of Don
That it was like losing a son

Because now I know
Full well
That I have lost a father"

Gouaux's Publications with Lipscomb

Kosman, R. P., Gouaux, J. E., and Lipscomb, W. N., "Crystal structure of CTP-ligated T state aspartate transcarbamoylase at 2.5 A resolution: Implications for ATCase mutants and the mechanism of negative cooperativity," PROTEINS: Structure, Function, and Genetics 15, 147-176 (1993).

Gouaux, J. E., Stevens, R. C., and Lipscomb, W. N., "Crystal Structures of Aspartate Carbamoyltransferase Ligated with Phosphonoacetamide, Malonate and CTP or ATP at 2.8-A Resolution and Neutral pH," Biochemistry 29, 7702-7715 (1990).

Stevens, R. C., Gouaux, J. E., and Lipscomb, W. N., "Structural Consequences of Effector Binding to the T State of Aspartate Carbamoyltransferase Crystal Structures of the Unligated and ATP- and CTP-Complexed Enzymes at 2.6-A Resolution," Biochemistry 29, 7691-7701 (1990).

Gouaux, J. E. and Lipscomb, W. N., "Crystal structures of phosphonoacetamide ligated T and phosphonoacetamide and malonatc ligated R states of aspartate carbamoyltransferase at 2.8 A resolution and neutral pH," Biochemistry 29, 389-402 (1990).

Gouaux, J. E., Stevens, R. C., Ke, H., and Lipscomb, W. N., "Crystal structure of the Glu-239 to Gln mutant of aspartate carbamoyltransferase at 3.1 A resolution: An intermediate quaternary structure," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 86, 8212-8216 (1989).

Gouaux, J. E., Lipscomb, W. N., Middleton, S. A., and Kantrowitz, E. R., "Structure of a Single Amino Acid Mutant of Aspartate Carbamoyltransferase at 2.5 A Resolution; Implications for the Cooperative Mechanism," Biochemistry 28, 1798-1803 (1989).

Gouaux, J. E. and Lipscomb, W. N., "Structural transitions in crystals of native aspartate carbamoyltransferase," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 86, 845-848 (1989).

Gouaux, J. E. and Lipscomb, W. N., "Three-dimensional structure of carbamoyl phosphate and succinate bound to aspartate carbamoyltransferase," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 85, 4205-4208 (1988).

Gouaux, J. E., Krause, K. L., and Lipscomb, W. N., "The catalytic mechanism of Escherichia coli aspartate carbamoyltransferase. A molecular modelling study," Biochemistry and Biophysics Research Communications 142, 893-897 (1987).

4.  Jim Lipscomb.  Eldest son.  Swingle accident.  Forgiveness.

James Lipscomb

Jim Lipscomb.  Son.  Senior Software Engineer at IBM.

Introduction to Jim Lipscomb by Dudly Hershbach

"Our third speaker in the first group is Jim Lipscomb, Bill’s son.  Among much else, he’s pretty good at mapping molecules too.  He received a Ph.D. in 1981 from the University of North Carolina, and I was delighted to see that his thesis was titled Three-dimensional cues for a molecular computer graphics system.

A major part of his career has been with IBM.  He’s created a superb website [(this website)] that describes many dimensions of Bill’s life and includes a lovely photo album as well as a gallery of molecular [models]."

Speech by Jim Lipscomb

"The website ... is open to anyone.  Send me your memories of Bill and I shall find a place for them [here, on this website]. ...."

Jim continued with short versions of three stories from his Eulogy,
  1. Eldest Son,  He lived for two hours.
  2. Swingle Accident,  Bill's attempt to save the life of Elizabeth Swingle.
  3. Forgiveness.  Forgiveness to the son.  Forgiveness to the father.

5.  Stan Ovshinsky.  Bill the riff-ster in science, music, art, and comedy.

Stan Ovshinsky

Stan OvshinskyInventor.  Associate of Bill starting from Minnesota days.  Founder of Energy Conservation Devices.

Introduction to Stan Ovshinsky by Dudly Hershbach

"As you see, our next group of speakers is headed by Stan Ovshinsky.  He is really a very remarkable fellow, eminent inventor and scientist, over 400 patents, mostly in the area of energy and information.  Many of you may not be aware of it, but one of these involves the nickel metal hydride battery that is widely used in laptops, digital cameras, cell-phones, and electric and hybrid cars.

Stan is the founder of the Energy Conservation Devices Company in Detroit, to which Bill long enjoyed serving as a consultant.  I think you’ll get a glimpse why Bill enjoyed it so much when Stan speaks to us."

Speech by Stan Ovshinsky

"I’m sure that many will wonder how Bill and I got together, because it’s really something that shows what he was like that has been alluded to by others.  Like me, Bill did not pay a lot of attention to … areas and disciplines in science, he always being interested, always being active, and always contributing in any area he felt like it.  Of course they are all connected.  They’re science.  [Bill] thought too that science is the way for the planet to overcome some of the terrible problems that lay before us, and so he would say, “Well, God didn’t make disciplines, man did.”  In those disciplines we [met] by having mutual friends.

He was interested so much in basic new physics and chemistry.  Anything that was fundamentally possibly important he could discuss, as Professor Corey said.  That was one of the great things about him.  When he would come to our home, he would just relax and we’d talk about everything and anything, not really primarily science and technology, but I [have a musician] son who is in the San Francisco Symphony, so [Bill] would always bring his clarinet, at first just to play for us, and then he’d play duets, and then with friends of my son he would play with a group.  The sound was so was so dear and precious to remember, because he was as serious about playing and as talented about playing, as he was in science.  [Bill had] excitement for new, fundamental happenings in the field, and I was doing something absolutely new in science (in physics, and in material science, including chemistry) and so if any of you drive Priuses or any of the … Toyota or the … Honda or the Ford hybrids, Bill [had a hand in] those cars, because we, together, enabled what our society needed, … electric and hybrid vehicles. 

[Bill was] a great source of strength to me, because even though I was a scientist, when you do something new, you are often not, [well,] it isn’t a happy time, so he was always there for encouragement, … telling about what he did and how he did it, … being supportive.  ….

If I was to get serious about Bill, I would have to say he represented the aspirations and potential that’s inherent in humanity.  That was a kind of full-blown person he was.

[Bill] was full of joy and spontaneity.  We talk about how he [played] serious music, but he loved jazz as well.  I don’t know if many of you knew that he was a friend of Dizzy Gillespie ....  He showed the excitement and showed the incredible way of appreciating art and artists, of whatever kind.

In my mind, as well as his, we were very close friends for many years, and … a symbol [of] Bill [is that] his riffs, like he would in jazz, appear in his serious scientific work.  He’s a riff-ster: … He suddenly comes out [at the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony], and there he is, and you’re laughing, and you’re enjoying it, … as … Viki [Victor] Weisskopf of MIT [and former head of CERN] once said, “The joy of science.” He represented pleasure and continuous learning. 

He was a marvelous and dear, dear friend, and it was wonderful to get together with him and Jean.  She meant so much to him, as you all know, and to his life, and added to it, and he was a happy man.  So there’s no way [to] express joy and mourning at the same time, but he could, and so I would rather that we remember and mourn and remember the meaning of joy that Bill represented.  I feel honored to speak about him, and I speak from the bottom of my heart.  Thank you."

6.  Janet Conrad.  Bill’s room was a disaster area.  The Yes-bell Uncle.

Janet Conrad

Janet ConradNiece, also representing Bill's sister Ginny.  MIT Physics Professor.

Introduction to Janet Conrad by Dudly Hershbach

"Our next speaker in this group is Janet Conrad, professor of Physics at MIT now, but earlier than that she began life as Niece of Uncle Bill Lipscomb, daughter of the youngest sister of Bill.

I heard from here in our gathering before [the Celebration] the stories of how her mother and Bill got in trouble by taking apart their precious grandfather clock that her mother later inherited and it never worked again, so I guess another grandchild will need to take on that project.

But Janet is not a student of molecules.  Instead, her work deals with neutrinos.  They’re ghostly particles.  They’re very shy.  They don’t interact much with anything else, even though the universe, as Janet likes to point out, contains far more neutrinos than atoms.  But she says, “When you study neutrinos, you never lack friends.  They’re all your friends,” and that’s something you can meditate on."

Speech by Janet Conrad

"I will begin by reading a few words from my mother, Virginia Lipscomb Conrad, William Lipscomb’s youngest sister. She cannot be here today due to health reasons; however, she wanted me to share with you some stories about growing up with Bill. As you can imagine, life with Bill was always an adventure! He always had spirit! I will read what she has asked me to say, and then share with you my own memories about my Uncle.

Let me begin with my mother’s words:"
Virginia Lipscomb Conrad
"We lived on an average street in Lexington Kentucky in a house that was full of love and music. We were blessed with great neighbors, many associated with the University of Kentucky. It was a neighborhood where the children played together, and everyone in our group grew up to have successful careers – many in academia, like Bill.

Bill’s room was a disaster area as far as his mother was concerned. In addition to a sizable chemistry laboratory, there were collections of such objects as old radios, Indian arrowheads from a nearby forest, and a series of wishbones arranged in order of size on the wall.

In our side yard there were large trees. Bill improvised a rope swing, a suspension bridge between two trees, and a tree house for all of us to enjoy. Also, nearby our home was a deserted chicken house that became a play place. Bill saw to it that the boys had sole possession at all times by spreading an evil smelling concoction that drove little sisters away.

Bill liked to create his own fireworks to entertain us on the fourth of July.

Many of you know how he loved to play tennis. There was a vacant lot next to the house. Bill and the bigger boys carefully took up the sod for a tennis court. There was an old-fashioned steam-roller repaving our road that summer. The driver rolled the court flat for us. Unfortunately, at the end of the summer, the owner of the lot showed up. He was not amused and that was the end of our tennis court.

Tragedy struck our family in 1937 when our sister Helen suffered polio, followed by complications. By this time, Bill was attending college at the University of Kentucky on a music scholarship. Almost every day during the months of Helen’s illness, Bill would walk up to the hospital to see her. They were very close and both were superb musicians.

In 1941, Bill graduated from the University of Kentucky. He kissed us goodbye and hitchhiked all the way to Cal Tech. The rest, of course, is history.

But while his science became a consuming passion, he remained close to his family. For me there was an important moment when Bill made a special effort to make it to my wedding. He brought our sister Helen, my maid of honor, down the aisle in her wheel chair."
Janet Conrad
"My mother’s remembrances resonate with me, because I have very similar stories about Uncle Bill. He had this spark that made everything more fun, special, and just better. There’s no question that he was my favorite Uncle. I have thought that since I was small - when I got to know Uncle Bill while my family lived in Boston when I was five years old. However, the example I would like to start with happened when I was in 7th grade.

Uncle Bill had just won the Nobel Prize, and this was in the local news. My friends congratulated me because my uncle won a “noble” prize. We thought this was really great – he was going to be noble – maybe a duke or an earl! When mom heard this she corrected me. It’s pronounced no-bell, not noble. No-bell. So when Uncle Bill called up, I got on the phone and very carefully said, “Congratulations on your No-bell Prize.” He paused for a moment and said to me: “Can you believe it? All that work and then they don’t give you a bell!” I thought that was really funny. I responded “Yeah, and they don’t give you a dukedom either!”

This became a joke between us. No-bell is just so negative. It ought to be the Yes-bell Prize. So much more positive! Since this prize was not already assigned, we could decide what it would be for. I decided the Yes-bell prize is for excellence in uncle-hood.

What does it take to be a Yes-bell Uncle? Well, you have to be better than the best. Best Uncles loan you their apartment in Cambridge for the summer when you are in college. And when you become a grad student at Harvard, the Best Uncles will cart furniture out of their basement and over to your student-slum apartment to make it livable. And Best Uncles will play the clarinet masterfully at your wedding. Uncle Bill did all of that.

But Uncle Bill was better than the Best Uncle, and that’s what gets you a Yes-bell Prize.

The Yes-bell Uncle tries to help you with your quantum mechanics homework when you are in graduate school. And you know what? He couldn’t solve those problems either! This made me and my friends feel much better.

A Yes-bell Uncle makes you look really good as a postdoc. When I was a postdoc, my first job was to understand why a detector had quit working. When I removed the very reactive liquid in the detector, I discovered that, rather than clear, it contained green flakes. I called Uncle Bill and he said - “that sounds like copper reacted with the liquid - do you have any copper tubing?” I didn’t think so, but nevertheless, I walked in the next morning and said “it’s copper.” People said “no, there is no copper here! We built this carefully.” But when we took it apart, what do you know? There was one copper-joint. Uncle Bill made me look like a star.

And a Yes-bell Uncle wants to talk about your research with you, not to seem interested but because he IS interested. When I came to MIT to give my colloquium as I was considering moving from Columbia to MIT, there was Uncle Bill in the audience. Yes, he had come to support his niece -- that’s what Best Uncles do. But he also came because he wanted to hear what I had to say. He was genuinely interested. The Yes-Bell uncle shares your interests.

A Yes-bell Uncle is a kindred spirit.

It was his spirit that made Bill Lipscomb so special. The spirit he shared with my mother, and with me, and with Aunt Jean and Jenna, Jim and Dorothy and everyone else. He was a person with a wonderful spirit. And so, what Mom and I and my sister, Jean, and my whole family want to say is: Thanks Bill for sharing that spirit with us."

7.  Jenna Lipscomb.  No different from anyone else's family. Or so I thought.

Jenna Lipscomb

Jenna Lipscomb.  Daughter.
NewburyBeaver (2016).
Jean C. Evans

Jean C. Evans.  Widow. 
Type designer and artist bookmaker.

Introduction to Jenna Lipscomb by Dudly Hershbach

"Our third speaker will be very special the perspective of a 22-year-old person, about to graduate from college, and she will actually be introduced by her mother.  [They are] of course Jean and Bill’s daughter.

I look forward to this, because I have enjoyed so often episodes, meeting, sharing things with Bill, and many times that included Jean.  She’s so wonderfully gracious and vivacious.  I remember that often for years now [she would] like to update me on Jenna’s activities.  I look forward to that aspect too."

Introduction to Jenna Lipscomb by Jean Evans

"Hello everyone. Welcome and thank you for coming today.

I especially would like to thank Bill for having such an amazing group of colleagues, friends and family. Your presence in his life has made my experience with him a very rich journey. Living with Bill these last 37 years has not been exactly restful, as you might well imagine, but the adventures have been wild, wonderful and totally remarkable.

Before I say a few words about Jenna and Bill, I want to thank Jenna for being such a great comfort and support to me these last few months. She has definitely been the good daughter. And, at age 22 she has become the young woman that all parents hope and pray for when their child is a teenager!

Jenna was the delight of Bill’s later years. It was apparent from the beginning that I was going to have to negotiate with Bill to “hold the baby.” He hogged her unmercifully from me.

Bill’s lap was always home base for Jenna as she was growing up. At most social gatherings you would find the two of them sitting on the floor, Bill cross-legged with Jenna in his lap. The home base theme grew into real live baseball then softball. When Jenna bypassed little girl softball for Little League Baseball, he was thrilled to be the Dad on the front row rooting for the only girl on the team. Bill reminded us from time to time about his dazzling unassisted triple play as a graduate student at Cal Tech earning him a headline in the Pasadena local newspaper. Sixty years later, Jenna was recruited to play softball at George Mason University and, in her own right, remains a crackerjack shortstop and second baseman.

Definitely her Daddy’s girl….."

Speech by Jenna Lipscomb

"Growing up, being the daughter of a Nobel Laureate was no different from anyone else's family. Or so I thought. I mean, I didn't know any better. I thought jet setting across the globe, going to conferences and being around all of these world reknown scientists was normal. Obviously, when I look back on my life, it was the farthest thing from normal, but then again, whose family is. When I was a child, I didn't even know what a Nobel Prize was. I remember once when I was really little, my mom gave me a thin chocolate doubloon in a gold wrapper, a replica of the Nobel Prize, and told me that was what Daddy had won. I was clearly not impressed with the fact that my dad had won a piece of chocolate.

My father had many different quirks, which I'm sure many of you have witnessed over the years. One specific memory I had was of my seventh birthday. He brought home a bucket of liquid nitrogen, sat down all of the kids in front of our kitchen counter and then proceeded to put a banana and flower into the bucket. Now, as most of you know, liquid nitrogen is a very powerful substance and instantly froze both objects. Mind you, he had on his white lab coat and goggles. He began to fish out the banana and flower with a pair of tongs and all of us kids thought they were still the same as when then went into the bucket. Well, he suddenly let go of the two and they smashed to the ground in a million pieces. My mom would describe the children having a look of horror yet infatuation over what had just happened. I’m pretty sure at most kid’s seventh birthdays they did not get a show with liquid nitrogen.

Another oddity my father had was his sense of nutrition. He never allowed me to have fast food, any kind of burnt food (because the burnt marks might contain carcinogens), or anything remotely bad for you. But I was a picky eater. When I was in grade school he became desperate enough at breakfast time to allow me to eat hot dogs or chicken nuggets with lots of ketchup and tiny frozen waffles piled high with whipped cream just to make sure I ate “a good” breakfast. If I've ever been over to one of your houses now you know why I choose to have hot dogs or pizza for breakfast, instead of the normal, eggs, cereal or pancakes.

Over the years, I came to realize that it was not just a piece of chocolate that he’d won, but it was actually something quite extarodinary. It was not until recently that I finally understood why every time we would go on a trip or to a meeting, people just fawned over him. Many people have come up to me after finding out about my father and saying that I must be amazing at chemistry and math. Most of you know that is absolutely not the case and I am actually rather terrible at the both of them. He obviously hasn’t given me his talent in the sciences, but what he has given me is so much more. He taught me how to have passion in everything I do; how to care for the others around me, but most importantly, he taught me how to love."

8.  Marc Abrahams.  Bill was game for anything, and he could make anything work.

Marc Abrahams

Marc Abrahams.  Editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and organizer of the Ig Nobel Prizes.

Introduction to Marc Abrahams by Dudly Hershbach

"Our next speaker I’m sure, like all of us, was delighted to hear about the Yes-bell.  Marc Abrahams, as many of you know, is the editor of a magazine called [Annals of] Improbable Research, in fact I think a company named that now, which compiles funny stories about actual research, even conducts some, and every October now at Harvard in Sanders Theather holds the Ig Nobel Ceremony.  Over the 20 years that this has gone on it’s become quite notorious.  It may get more publicity now than the Alfred Nobel Prize.  The Alfred Nobel Prizes are announced earlier and earlier and it seems that they are trying to get out the news before Ig Nobel is held.

In any case, Marc is a remarkable fellow in many other ways.  He was a Harvard undergraduate.  He got his Bachelors degree in Applied Mathematics, class of 1978.  He likes to point out now that there was another fellow in that program, who was in the class of 1977 but dropped out, Bill Gates.  Marc worked in computer software for some years, optical character recognition, working for a time with Kurtzweil on work that enabled blind people to do much more.  ....

Bill was an avid participant for all the years in the Ig Nobel, and I think he was a member of the editorial board of the Annals of Improbable Research from its inception somewhat earlier."

Speech by Marc Abrahams

"Bill, I think, would have liked the idea of all these people coming up and riding some kind of big eagle to talk about him.  He enjoyed the unexpected combinations of things.

I met Bill about 20 years ago.  I had become the editor of a magazine that’s about funny things in science, and I got to meet a lot of eminent scientists and a lot of not-at-all eminent scientists, and a lot of the eminent ones would point me to some of their peers who had a good sense of humor, who might enjoy being interviewed and asked unusual questions, and quite a few of them mentioned Bill Lipscomb, but then they all said pretty much the same thing immediately, as if it was a thought that automatically followed the, “Oh, you should talk to Bill Lipscomb.” part.  And I remember that Dudly [Hershbach] was one of these people too.  They’d say, “Go.  Bill Lipscomb has a great sense of humor.  You should go talk to him.” And then, “Well, but on the other hand, now don’t …” They would always say this, “…. don’t take this personally.  I don’t mean it that way, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”  And I didn’t quite understand this, and I was intimidated, so for a year or so I didn’t call Bill, but after a while, because more and more people were telling me about this guy, Bill Lipscomb, with this sense of humor, I decided, “What can he do?  The worst he could do is yell at me.”  And that’s not a terrible thing.

So I screwed up my courage, and I got [Bill's] phone number and I dialed the number, and he answered the phone, and I told him who I was, and he said, “I’ve been hoping you’d call me.” And he invited me over, and we became fast friends and very quickly became collaborators in an awful lot of ways.  A lot of what we were doing was making people laugh about things in science, but underneath a big part of it also was being really sneaky about getting non-scientists to become curious about what all this science stuff is, and getting scientists in “that” field to become curious about what the scientists down the hall in “this” field are actually doing, because they don’t speak language often.

We had this thing called the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony every year, which is this gigantic show with all sorts of things involved, and Bill from the very first moment became more involved than anybody else, and he became in a way the heart and sole of this thing.  He was game for anything, and he could make anything work. We had Bill dancing in a ballet, the Interpretive Dance of the Electrons.  We had Bill singing in operas, doing all sorts of things.  Keep in mind that for some of these things, especially the ballet, he didn’t know we were doing a ballet until about two minutes before he was on stage with this ballet corps, but he was wonderful.  You can see in the still photographs, there’s just this immense life and motion in there.

He had a sense of timing that was so good that you almost wouldn’t notice it.  And it was only we who were putting the show together who would notice often that the audience would be responding to him, even if Bill was just standing there, supposedly doing nothing people were laughing, and it wasn’t an accident.  He was causing this.  He was causing this quite consciously, and you could not describe it.  I have been thinking about this for 20 years, and I can still only describe it in this rudimentary way: It’s like a really great jazz singer who if that singer is singing even just a single note it sounds beautiful, and you try singing that same note back to yourself the same way, and you realize that there is so much going on in that one note that you can’t begin to understand everything there.  And that’s the way Bill was.  And I can’t even describe what it was.  It wasn’t just a note, it wasn’t just talking, it was everything.

I want to read you a couple of things that are Bill.  As part of the [Ig Nobel] Ceremony we sometimes had little tiny speeches.  These were designed as things that would be a star turn for various people. 

We had a thing we called the Heisenberg Certainty Lecture.  Many of you know about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and I should tell you this story, because nobody else did: Bill loved to tell that he was at a dinner (I think that Jean [Evans] was there too) years ago in Germany probably, and he found himself seated next to Mrs. Heisenberg, the widow of Werner Heisenberg, for whom the Heisenberg Principle is named, and she introduced herself to Bill, and she said, “I am Mrs. Heisenberg.”  And Bill looked at here and said, “Are you sure?”  [Bill wrote this story up, number 24 on the list, in his unpublished manuscript Humor In Science and in Aesthetic Aspects of Science. -Ed.].

One year we asked Bill to do one of the Heisenberg Certainty Lectures.  And the deal on this was that if we invite you to do one of these, you can talk about anything you want, but you have to do it in 30 seconds.  I don’t even remember what the topic was, but this is what Bill said.  The topic doesn’t really matter.  This was in 1994.  The landscape has changed a little bit, so put your mind back in 1994.  Whatever his topic was, he said, “The following statement of the Heisenberg Certainty Principle is dedicated to the United States Congress.  If your position is everywhere, your momentum is zero.”  If that didn’t make complete sense to you, just talk to somebody who is laughing, who is undoubtedly a scientist, and they will be really happy to spend the next four hours explaining the background.

I brought one other thing. ….  If you’ve come to the Ig Nobel you know that Bill became more than just the Bill Lipscomb known to his family and friends.  He became a character known as Professor Lipscomb, which was completely true to everything that he was, it was just ever so much more so.  And he was a beloved figure.  And it carried over, not just on the stage.  It turned out that we could do this in other places.  Several times he and I would do interviews.  He and I would sit together, and I’d ask him questions, and he would come up with answers, and we would tape-record them, and I’d transcribe them.  This was little pieces of an interview we did in 1999 on the subject of tea, because Bill liked to drink tea quite often. I’m going to be reading you this. Part of this is what I was saying and part of it is what Bill was saying.  I’m not going to try to imitate Bill, because I can’t. ....

I should mention: We concocted this stuff, so the whole idea of this thing was, “I’m going to ask you some questions, and whatever I ask, you just be very nice, and you offer me tea, and you be a real pain, so I can’t even finish the interview,”  And [Bill] said, “OK.”  And so keep in mind that we were just making this up, and in fact it was my idea for him to ask me this question, however he was so good at it that I kept forgetting.  Every time he would ask me if I wanted tea, I thought he really meant it.

So, “How much coffee do you drink in the course of a day?”

[Bill], “Not much. I actually prefer tea. Would you like some tea?”

No, thank you.

Oh. I'd be perfectly happy to share mine with you. ..

ls it a strong preference for tea rather than coffee?

Oh, yes, yes, yes indeed. I prefer it with low caffeine because caffeine keeps me awake during the seminars here. Would you like some tea?

No, thank you.

Oh. I thought maybe you'd change your mind.

No, but thank you. Now, how much tea do you drink in the course of a day?

Oh, a few cups. A few cups. Certainly one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and occasionally a few more. Are you sure you wouldn’t like some tea? l have plenty here. You can-

Oh, no thank you. No thank you. Now, do you make your own tea, generally?

Oh, yes. It’s not very difficult. You just take a tea bag and put it in some hot water. But that’s nothing for a chemist, you know. We often do things like that.

Is that your entire recipe for making tea?

Yes. It just depends critically on how long you leave it. .. In the water... Yes. In the water.

And [the interview] went on, and down towards the end, just another few questions here.

Do you have any favorite tea stories from your youth?

I remember that in my early days I used to have tea every afternoon with my graduate students. That was a time when we could talk about just about anything, including science. That was a very nice ceremony. I really enjoyed that. Somehow I’ve lost that. We don’t do that any more, because people tend to go off to Starbucks or whatever and have their tea somewhere else.


Do you drink tea?

Yes, I do.

Oh, good. When you’re ready I’ll make some for you.

I appreciate the offer, thank you.

Whenever you’re ready. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a cup now?

No, really. I’ve got to get going.

Would you like to take some tea along?

No. No, thank you. I’ve really got to go.

Why don’t you take some of these tea bags with you. I’ve got plenty.

And it went on for another five minutes,[Full interview iis here. -Ed.] and I assure you that every time he asked me I forgot.  It was 10 seconds since I’d asked him before, and we went through this, and I had this realization again that we’d cooked this up and still, every time he asked me I thought he meant it, and that was Bill."

9.  David Lawton.  Secret music scholarship.  Bill made those around him better.

David Lawton

David Lawton, Professor of Music at Stony Brook University and Artistic Director of Stony Brook Opera.  Music House Party activities with Bill.

Introduction to David Lawton by Dudly Hershbach

"Our final speaker will be David Lawton, professor of music at the State University [of New York] at Stony Brook.  There, he is Artistic Director of the Stony Brook Opera.  He teaches Music History.  He’s also an internationally recognized Verdi scholar, and he conducted many operas in this country and in Italy.

He has also served as conductor in recent years for the Music House Party I mentioned.  From what I’ve heard about it, they gather for a week, usually a week before Labor Day, and they totally do music, …. Some …, Bill Lipscomb among them did science.  It’s not so surprising for all these years, many years, I think several decades, Bill would every year take a week for Music House Party.

I want now, before the next two speakers step up and then we go on to the music to express thanks to the musicians, [for this] very, very special contribution.  Many of them did perform with Bill in those sessions, and it reminds of a story I’ve heard that jazz players like to say when they have a hot session, when they part ways, they say, “So long.  It’s been brief but intense.”  I think that would be turned around a little for today’s celebration.  I would say, “So long.  It’s been intense and enduring.”  That’s the legacy of what we’ve heard about Bill."

Speech by David Lawton

"So much of what Marc just told you about Bill resonates so strongly with what we experienced from him at House Party.  In fact I even hesitated [to mention] some of the more outrageous skits that he participated in while at House Party, but you’ll get an idea of how free he felt there and also what Marc told you about his absolutely being able to work without a script and improvise something terribly funny and keep it going for a long time was absolutely true of him as well.

I came to know Bill Lipscomb during my first stint as conductor at Music House Party, from the mid-nineteen eighties to the mid-nineties. When I returned for a second stint six years ago, after an absence of some ten years, Bill was no longer playing, but he still took a lively interest in House Party, and came to several concerts of the group.

In order to set the context for my remarks about Bill and House Party, I need to tell you something, briefly, about this remarkable institution. Since several years before World War II, Music House Party has been meeting every year during the week before Labor Day.  Participation is by invitation from a volunteer committee (with rotating membership) that organizes and runs the week. Every day follows the same pattern: we are all together for the morning for orchestra from 9:30-12 noon. The rest of the day is devoted entirely to chamber music. It is a point of honor for every single player of some 50 [players] to play with every other player in the camp at least once during the week.  So as Dudley told you, the playing goes on virtually 24 hours a day during that period.  On the last Sunday, the day before Labor Day, we give a short orchestra concert to which friends and family are invited. For as long as I have been associated with House Party, the week has taken place at Kinhaven Music School in Weston, Vermont with the exception of this past summer, because it was flooded and we went to New Hampshire instead.

House Party participants are a mixture of professional musicians and highly accomplished amateurs who are united in their love of chamber music. The ages of the participants ranges from the early twenties to people in their eighties or nineties. Music House Party always brings out the child in all of us. Whether it is the constant music making, the camaraderie among us, or the lively discussions among a group of brilliant and talented people, all of us invariably feel free to explore the child still within us. Bill loved every aspect of House Party, from the constant orchestral and chamber music playing, to the wonderful meals together (we have a gourmet chef for the week), to the clever skits put on by various participants at mealtimes to the delight and amusement of all of us.  Bill was an indefatigable skit player, and a wonderful one.

As a musician Bill was an accomplished clarinetist, fully on a professional level, with a profound knowledge of all of the essential chamber music involving clarinet or other woodwind instruments. He also played obscure works that he had acquired after exploring numerous catalogs of European and American Music publishers. He had an extensive library of wind chamber music, and he introduced all of us to pieces that many of us had never heard or played. He knew a great deal about the mechanical construction of clarinets, and took very good care of his own instruments: he brought them regularly to the finest woodwind repairman on the East Coast, a man named Mönnig, whose shop was in Philadelphia. Although there are certainly good woodwind specialists in Boston, Bill would only settle for the finest, and made a point of traveling to Philadelphia whenever he needed an adjustment or a repair.

Bill’s knowledge of printed editions of chamber music was extensive. At the most recent Music House Party (at the end of August), one of our members, Pianist Greg Hayes, whom we’ve heard today, remembered an incident that revealed this quality of Bill’s knowledge of editions, and his love of sharing it with others in a helpful way.

Bill had found out that Greg was scheduled to play the Poulenc Sextet for Piano and Woodwind Quintet later that day. Before the session, he brought Greg a copy of a solo piano part for him to use in the reading. Greg explained to us that in the currently available parts, the pianist plays from a full score of the piece, containing not only the piano part, but all of the wind parts as well. This format is advantageous in one sense, because the pianist can see what the other players are playing. At the same time, though, it is cumbersome, because the pianist must turn the pages much more frequently. Bill knew that in the score most pianists use, there were one or two impossible page turns, where the pianist is so busy playing that he doesn’t have time to take one hand off the piano to turn the page. Bill happened to own an early French edition of the parts, in which the piano part was printed by itself, and all the page turns were easily manageable. He told Greg that this French edition had been out of print for years, but he had a copy with him that he was happy to lend Greg for their session. Bill’s knowledge of the various editions of the piece, and his thoughtfulness and generosity in approaching Greg and offering him the solo piano part are wonderful examples of how much Bill gave to all of us at House Party.

We all remember vividly his kindness, his delightful sense of humor, which has come out in so many other ways today, and his encouragement of younger colleagues. And in this connection I want to mention something I just learned from a House Party member right before this ceremony. For the time that Bill was alive and associated with House Party, which dated from the early 1960s whenever a young people was invited to House Party and could not afford to pay the dues, Bill covered it, and gave that young person a scholarship.  It’s an extraordinary testimony to his generosity and his encouragement of younger people.

(Story written but not delivered orally: Brian Clague, a House Party violinist who spent a lot of time with Bill during the final weeks of his life, remembers how Bill helped him early on at House Party. Bill had invited Brian to play the first violin part in the Schubert Octet, a work of formidable technical difficulty for the first violinist--practically a violin concerto. Brian told us how Bill gently took him by the hand and led him through this work with constant support and encouragement. One he arrived safely and still in one piece at the end of the work, Brian told us that Bill’s encouragement and guidance had helped him overcome his terror of the difficulties of the part.)

To close, I’d like to share two of my own fondest memories of Bill at House Party.

The first is from what I think was my very first year there.  Like Bill I’m a clarinetist, but at the time I first came to House Party, I was no longer playing.  I just didn’t have time to practice and didn’t own an instrument any more. In fact, only two House Party members whom I had known from Graduate School even knew that I played clarinet. With Bill’s help, they encouraged me to start playing again by planning a skit that would introduce me as a clarinetist in a humorous way. For the skit we decided to put on a mock performance of the second movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto at lunchtime, with Bill as soloist and me as conductor. During the “performance” Bill deliberately made glaring rhythmic mistakes on purpose, causing the orchestra to fall apart, and making it necessary for us to keep stopping and starting over and over and over again. Finally, pretending to be frustrated, I grabbed his clarinet, gave him my baton, and told him: “Maybe it will work better if we switch roles!”  He took my place as conductor, and I played the solo; this time everything worked perfectly!  After that, Bill offered to lend me his instrument whenever he didn’t need it, and I wound up playing almost every day. Since then, I have resumed playing clarinet, and now have my own instrument again. Bill was really the one who made that happen, and I will always be grateful to him for it.

The second incident happened during the last time that I saw Bill. Two years ago he and Jean came up to our final concert. I had decided to stay after dinner instead of returning home to New York, and had arranged to play the Brahms Clarinet Trio with Greg Hayes and Marshall Brown, both of whom have played this afternoon. Bill wanted to hear us play and came with us to the concert hall for the reading, where he sat right behind me. At a certain point I had trouble playing a very high note in tune, so I turned around and asked Bill if he knew a better fingering for that note. Instantly, without saying a word, he held both hands up with an imaginary clarinet in hand, and showed me the fingering I needed, with a twinkle in his eye. At our most recent House Party we took a few moments to remember Bill, and shared these as well as many other wonderful stories involving him. During that tribute Brian Clague, who has also played today, told us how much music, and especially memories of music at House Party had meant to Bill in the last days of his life. The joyful abandon that Bill brought to every House Party has enriched all of our lives immeasurably, and we miss him."

10. Music

Musicians playing
  1. Solace: A Mexican Serenade, Scott Joplin (ca. 1867-1917)
  2. Forlana (IV) from Five Bagatelles, Op. 23, Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
  3. Adagio (II) from Trio, Op. 114, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
  4. Allegro (I) from Quintet, K. 518, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

11. Musicians.  Music House Party players and friends of the family.

(Left-to-right in photo above)
  1. Brian Clague, violin
  2. Gregory Hayes, piano
  3. Andy Stein, violin
  4. Ed Matthews, clarinet
  5. Marshall Brown, cello
  6. Josie Stein, viola

-- Sept. 2011, last updated Nov. 2016,   James is here        Home page

Speeches are by permission of each of the speakers.

Image credits: Except as noted from a video provided courtesy of Harvard University.

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