June 12, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 18

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    University will present three scholars with honorary degrees

    At the University's 473rd Convocation on Friday, June 13, three scholars will be presented with honorary degrees. The University confers honorary degrees exclusively in recognition of research and scholarship to individuals who have made significant contributions to their fields of study.

    During Session II of Spring Convocation, Persi Diaconis, Ryoji Noyori and Patrick Thaddeus will each receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.

    Diaconis, the Mary V. Sunseri professor and professor of mathematics at Stanford University, has over the past 20 years had a major influence on the development of probability theory. He and his collaborators have created diverse and recondite mathematical tools to analyze games of chance and their associated accouterments, such as cards, dice, coins and roulette wheels, and for other statistical investigations.

    Though the mathematical theory of probability was born some 350 years ago when the Chevalier de Mere brought to the attention of Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal the problem of calculating odds in a dice-rolling game played in certain French casinos, Diaconis' contributions have furthered the study of probability theory.

    He is perhaps best known for his discovery with David Bayer that "seven shuffles suffice" to "randomize" a deck of cards. The problem of ascertaining how long a random process must run before reaching equilibrium recurs in almost every area of science where random processes arise. Accordingly, Diaconis' work and ideas have had ramifications throughout the sciences.

    Before he embarked on a career in mathematics, Diaconis was a professional magician with an expertise in card tricks. By bringing the power of abstract mathematical reasoning to bear on the concrete problems of chance that arise from the milieu of gambling, magic and everyday coincidence, Diaconis followed the best and oldest tradition of probability.

    Steven Lally, Chairman of Statistics and Professor in Statistics and the College, will present Diaconis at the ceremony.

    Noyori, professor in chemistry, the graduate school of science and director of the Research Center for Materials Science at Nagoya University in Japan, is well known for his breakthrough research on asymmetric catalysis and organic synthesis. His contributions to asymmetric synthesis encompass virtually every aspect of the subject and have been key in illuminating the basic ideas of chemical reactivity and selectivity, including the conception and design of novel catalysts and catalytic reactions and the elucidation of the mechanistic aspects of asymmetric catalysis. After 37 years, Noyori, the originator of the field, continues to lead and shape asymmetric catalysis.

    In 1966, Noyori succeeded in producing the first reaction that converted achiral substrates to chiral products with a preference for one of the mirror-image isomeric forms, using a synthetic homogeneous catalyst. Before his discovery, no catalysts, other than the enzymes that constitute the catalysts of living systems, were known to produce this reaction. Because his research is widely useful, for example, in the synthesis of pharmaceuticals, the field continues to be an active area of research in many of the world's leading academic and industrial laboratories.

    Jack Halpern, the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry, will present Noyori at the ceremony.

    Thaddeus, the Robert Wheeler Wilson professor in applied astronomy and applied physics at Harvard University, is an important figure in the field of radioastronomy and molecular spectroscopy. He has made two crucial contributions: he has discovered the largest number of interstellar molecules and has created a new atlas of the Galaxy using molecular clouds, which are embryos of stars.

    The field began in 1968 when Charles Townes discovered interstellar ammonia and water. Subsequent observations led to the novel concept of "molecular clouds," which are now well established as the birthplace of stars and serve a role in the formation of these stars during their chemical evolution. This union of astronomy and chemistry was a critical development in the last half of the 20th century.

    In his research, Thaddeus has not only made astrophysical discoveries and demonstrated originality, but also enriched chemistry at a fundamental level. Thaddeus conducted laboratory spectroscopy to aid the detection and identification of many molecules that were unknown to chemists. He also successfully discovered interstellar molecules while detecting exotic molecular species using an ultrahigh sensitivity laboratory spectrometer.

    Instead of using a large telescope, Thaddeus built his own "mini" atop the physics building of Columbia University. Using this mini telescope and its identical twin, built later in the Southern Hemisphere, Thaddeus completed a new atlas of the Milky Way.

    Takeshi Oka, the Robert A. Milliken Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry, Astronomy & Astrophysics, the Enrico Fermi Institute and the College, will present Thaddeus at the ceremony.