Charles Bonner Harris

March 20, 2020

Charles Bonner Harris

By Jennifer Shanoski (Ph.D. '06, Chem)

Charles Bonner Harris was born in New York on April 24, 1940, the first child of Charles J. and Brenda Bonner Harris. Six months later, the family moved to Oak Park, Illinois, where his sister, Sally, was born. When Charles was 4 years old, the family relocated again, this time permanently to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, an upscale suburb just outside of Detroit. His father began running a series of newspapers which ran want-ads in various languages for the war effort, a family business that was run by his brother in Chicago and his brother-in-law in New York. Charles’s mother, a former lawyer, stayed at home with the children and ran the household. At first, the business prospered and the young family thrived. In the early 1950s, however, the advertising business collapsed, and Charles’s father was forced into bankruptcy. The family moved from a large house staffed with servants to a small apartment in Grosse Pointe, and Charles’s father began working in a factory as a precision engineer. Charles claims that, despite the financial difficulty that his family underwent during this time, the hardship was limited in scope because the family was strong and never experienced emotional changes.

With Lebanese roots, the family maintained close ties that helped to isolate them from extreme difficulty. Charles was close to his father throughout his life. The traits that his father had, patience, integrity, and understanding, are those that Charles continues to value highly. It is these traits that make Charles reflect on his father as the person he has always admired most. To this day, this sense of family togetherness remains, and Charles continues to enjoy a close relationship with his sister, Sally, who has consistently been supportive of him.

As a teenager, Charles excelled in sports, lettering in varsity track and football. At the age of 16, before graduating from high school, Charles decided to move out of his parents’ house and into a room in Detroit. This was a “stupid” decision centered on a desire to get away from his household chores. His parents agreed to it with two conditions: that Charles continue high school and that he continue to be present at the family’s Sunday evening dinner. After a few months, the commute to high school got to be too much and Charles traded in his freedom for a more conventional end to his high school career.

Charles did well enough in high school to earn a scholarship to Cornell where he went for his undergraduate study. At Cornell, Charles either passed a class with an A or, as in his chemistry course, earned an F. With an overall average of a 69.8%, Charles did not meet the criteria, 70% or higher, to keep his scholarship. Charles had to explain this situation to his father who had come to pick him up for the summer vacation. After a brief talk with the dean, his father gave him two choices: the army or a job. Charles returned to Detroit with his father and chose the latter.

In his first job, Charles worked at a factory that manufactured titanium shells for satellites. His job was to maintain the chemicals used for etching the titanium. Once, while moving a carboy of H2SO4 into a truck, acid spilled all over Charles and he made a quick decision to dive into a large tank nearby. Luckily, he chose the correct one and found himself in cool water instead of more acid. The acid soaked him so thoroughly that his motorcycle boots had disintegrated and the bottoms of his feet were black for weeks! Despite this mishap, the foreman of the manufacturing plant noticed Charles’s aptitude for chemistry and expressed the opinion that Charles was wasting his time at the factory. He did Charles, and the scientific community, a great favor by laying him off, which allowed him to collect unemployment and go back to school. Charles took this opportunity and went to summer school at the University of Michigan where he was at the top of both classes that he tooksphysics and sociology. In the fall, he was dismayed to discover that the university would not accept him because of his poor performance at Cornell. Charles took this in stride and enrolled full time at Henry Ford Community College. After one year, the University of Michigan accepted Charles’s application, and Charles moved to Ann Arbor. During this time, Charles met his first wife, Sara.

At the University of Michigan, Charles developed a love of philosophy and psychology. Influenced by reading William James, Charles became interested in medicine and started working toward a premedical degree. Charles did well enough in his first couple of semesters to earn another scholarship. This, along with his wife’s support, allowed Charles to focus on his studies and become involved with scientific research. One of the requirements for his premed studies was, of course, chemistry; this requirement gave him the background to pursue research activities in embryology and biochemistry, and this research led him away from a medical career and toward a career as a research scientist.

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1963, Charles decided to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study crystallography with Alex Rich in biophysics. Charles joined the biophysics department which required two years of classes before being able to join a research lab. Instead of waiting to do the research that he had come to love, Charles sought to join a different department with different requirements. At that time, F. Albert Cotton was starting up a new protein crystallography program. This project was well adapted to Charles: as part of the chemistry department he could start research immediately and the research was new and interesting. As a starting point, Cotton gave Charles a problem: to find the crystal structure of Re2Cl8 2-. This was the first compound discovered to have a quadruple (delta) bond between metal atoms, and the discovery identified Charles as a talented, young, inorganic chemist. After mastering the crystallography of small molecules, Charles decided to turn his attention to the underlying theory. He had heard a lecture about the Townes-Dailey theory which predicts the quadrupole coupling elements based on the rearrangement of valence electron shell p-orbitals upon bond formation and believed it to be too simplistic. Charles had the idea that molecular orbital theory should be used for this problem, and he started working on it during his spare time; these results were communicated to PNAS by Charles H. Townes. This project turned Charles onto a new area of theoretical research that would carry him into his transition to a physical chemist.

Charles Bonner Harris Working

During Charles’s graduate career, Charles worked hard and played hard. The numerous papers, and the scientific accomplishments that they outline, in the three years that he was a graduate student at MIT, attest to his hard work. In addition to all of this work, however, Charles found time to foster a number of outside interests. As a teenager, Charles had used his classical piano training to learn jazz. His father would take  him to the West End Hotel where from 2:00 to 4:00 a.m. Charles listened to music and was even permitted by Yusef Latif to play an occasional set. This interest in jazz carried over into graduate school where Charles was part of a jazz trio that played at Friday night gatherings at M. I. T. In this trio, Charles learned to play the stand-up base from a Julliard graduate but mainly stuck to his role as the piano man. Charles looks back at his time in graduate school as one of the best times in his life. The excitement that he felt with his scientific endeavors was matched by the numerous good times that he enjoyed outside of the laboratory.

In 1966, after three years, Charles finished his Ph.D. studies; as he likes to tell his graduate students, his thesis was written in three days by simply stapling all of his publications together. With his newly founded interest in theory established, Charles decided to do his postdoctoral studies with John Slater in the Physics Department at M. I. T. During this time, Charles did not publish extensively but learned to be a physicist as well as a chemist; it was one of the most educational times in his life. He was hired for a professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, as an inorganic chemist based on his impressive graduate career. But Berkeley would not get an inorganic chemist; instead, they would get a physical chemist with unique and diversified talents.

Charles’s decision to come to Berkeley in 1967 was centered on the startup package that was given to him by Leo Brewer, then the director of the Rad lab (now LBNL). Charles had the idea that he wanted to study bonding in excited states using a multipulse nuclear quadrupole resonance (NQR) experiment. He had just started building an instrument when he saw a paper by J. H. van der Waals that showed an optically detected electron spin resonance (ESR) spectrum in zero field with satellite peaks. These peaks were not understood when they were reported, but Charles thought that they were exactly what he was looking for: the separation between the peaks tells one the quadrupole coupling between excited states. He set out to prove this theory by carrying out an optically detected electron nuclear double resonance (ENDOR) experiment. In this endeavor, he collaborated with Gus Maki, then at Riverside, Mostafa El-Sayed, then at UCLA, and his postdoc, Dino Tinti. The four would meet in UCLA on the weekends and work all day. In the evenings, they would go out on the town where Charles would play the piano, Gus Maki would play the drums, and Mostafa El-Sayed would revel in their performance.

This collaboration resulted in two famous papers: one carrying out the zero field, optically detected ENDOR experiments that Charles had originally set out to do and one about phosphorescence-microwave double-resonance (PMDR) spectroscopy which was the brainchild of Mostafa El-Sayed. Charles’s research group continued with this type of fundamental physical chemistry doing coherence experiments much like those done previously with NMR. As lasers became more available, this line of research became less powerful and Charles moved into the realm of optics where he began to use picosecond spectroscopy to study the various problems that interested him. Charles established a spectroscopic research group that continues today with the two sides of his group: the surface side and the liquid side.

The surface side of the group originated with the desire to perform optical spectroscopy of molecules adsorbed on surfaces. This led to experiments investigating surface enhanced photochemistry and two-photon photoemission. The liquid side of the group started with a desire to explore the inhomogeneous distribution of molecules in liquids which eventually led to ultrafast, infrared, spectroscopic studies of chemical reactions in solution. In addition to having two distinct research areas, Charles continues to incorporate many aspects of chemistry into his group. The liquid side is often involved in the synthetic preparation of starting materials, and both sides have done extensive theoretical work in addition to the spectroscopy that defines them as experimental physical chemists. A hallmark of Charles’s research is this combination of theory with experiment.

As Charles developed as a professor of chemistry, his family grew. His first daughter, Heather, was born in 1968 and his second daughter, Sabrina, followed shortly after in 1970. With his family and career growing quickly, Charles also found time to develop a new hobbyswind-surfing. Along with music, surfing became one of the great loves of Charles and he continued to take part in the sport despite many injuries, including one that resulted in the loss of his front teeth. His love for the sport prompted him to design his own surf board and use it, on occasion, to procure dinner for his children from a nearby fishing boat. Only recently, due to a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, has Charles ceased surfing.

Sara and Charles divorced in 1973 and Charles remarried in 1976. He and his second wife, Ingrid, had two children in the coming years. His third daughter, Vanessa, was born in 1977 and his son, Maarten, was born in 1983. All of his children are a great source of pride, although none followed their father into science and have carved out unique paths for themselves. Sabrina was studying to be a fashion designer when she was diagnosed with cancer; she died in 2004 and losing her was the most difficult experience that Charles has ever endured. Heather is a bookkeeper and remembers her sister by continuing to create beautiful, intricate, Renaissance costumes. Vanessa will be graduating from Harvard medical school this spring and will start her residency in Holland. Maarten studies art at Sonoma State University and is a white-water rafting instructor during the summer.

When asked what his greatest accomplishment to science is, Charles does not hesitate with his answer: his students. More than 75 students and postdocs have come through the group in the 28 years that Charles has been a professor. The high percentage of those students that have gone into an academic career attest to the unique training that they receive under Charles’s mentorship. Charles attributes his scientific success in large part to the young scientists that have worked with him, saying that he believes his group to be comprised of “the best scientists at their stage in their career.” The origin of his students’ success comes from the independence that the students have always had as members of the Harris group. This independence has allowed students to foster their own scientific creativity while learning the value of fitting their ideas into the “big picture.” Instead of being remembered for a single scientific contribution, Charles believes that his legacy will be with the students that he has had and their development in the scientific community. Watching students blossom into independent scientists has been the pride of Charles’s research endeavors.

Charles’s career has changed from one devoted entirely to research to one that is now focused more on administrative duties. In 2003, Charles was asked to be the Chair of the Department of Chemistry. He was surprised by this request but took on the responsibility because he wanted to pay the department back for all that it had given him through the years. Another large factor in the decision was the request itself; Charles was honored that other people had such confidence in his opinions. This appointment did not last long because Charles was asked to become the Dean of the College the following 19748 J. Phys. Chem. B, Vol. 110, No. 40, 2006 year. For the next six months, Charles became what his group called the “Dean-Chair” and took on partial responsibilities of both appointments.

As the Dean of the College of Chemistry, Charles has made it his goal to build up materials chemistry “in a big way” by bridging the Chemical Engineering and Chemistry Departments. It is his strong belief that the next wave of science will be focused on chemical biology and materials. Charles is focused on making Berkeley the center of both. There are, obviously, positive and negative aspects to being Dean. On the negative side, Charles has found the balance between research with administrative duties that he achieved when he was the Chair of the department is not as easy now that he is the Dean. The positive aspects of the job, however, outweigh the difficulties. Working with the other Deans in the university is a central aspect of the job that Charles enjoys. With so many amazing people surrounding him, Charles has been able to see the connections between departments that make the university whole. Additionally, Charles continues to feel an obligation to the university that hired him out of graduate school and has consistently allowed him to develop into the person and scientist that he has become.

Despite the vast array of administrative duties that Charles has taken on, he continues to support a research group of eight students. The surface side is focusing its efforts on molecular electronics materials, catalytic reactions, and charge transfer in binary systems. The liquid side continues their exploration of chemical reaction dynamics including disproportionation, bond activation, and isomerization.