David Chandler, pillar of physical chemistry, dies at the age of 72

April 26, 2017

Prof. Philip Geissler and the late Prof. David Chandler

Chandler (r.) with fellow chemistry professor (and former student) Phillip Geissler at the opening of the Pitzer Center expansion in Gilman Hall, November 2016. Photo by Michael Barnes.

David Chandler, pillar of the physical chemistry scientific community and Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, died April 18, 2017 at the age of 72 at his home in Berkeley, CA after a valiant twenty-year battle with prostate cancer. Spanning a career that changed the course of the field of physical chemistry, not just once but several times, he is credited with crafting the modern language and concepts for describing structure and dynamics of condensed matter, especially complex systems with disorder and heterogeneity, such as liquids, glasses and biological assemblies. He also developed the methods by which rare but important events can be simulated with computers, techniques that culminated in David's development of a statistical physics of trajectory space. This work enabled his studies of systems far from equilibrium, including processes of self-assembly and the glass transition. Importantly, he founded and/or took active roles several regular scientific symposia that gave space to creative thinking in these fields and spawned a new generation of scientific discovery.

David was a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a foreign member of the Royal Society. David's honors include the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry, American Chemical Society (2012); Liquid Matter Prize, European Physical Society (2011); Chemistry Teaching Award, UC Berkeley (2011); Sackler Lecturer, Tel Aviv University (2009); Elected Fellow of the American Chemical Society (2009); G. B. Kistiakowsky Lecturer, Harvard University (2006); Irving Langmuir Prize in Chemical Physics, American Physical Society (2005); Lennard-Jones Lecturer, Royal Society of Chemistry (2001); Mulliken Award, University of Chicago (2000); Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Award (1999); Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Award (1999); Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Award (1999); Journal of Physical Chemistry Centennial Lecturer (1996); Theoretical Chemistry Award, American Chemical Society (1996); Christianson Fellow of St. Catherine's College, University of Oxford (1993); Miller Research Professor (1991 and 1999-2000); Flygare Memorial Lecturer, University of Illinois (1989); Hildebrand Award for Research on Liquids, American Chemical Society (1989); Bourke Medal and Lecturer, Royal Society of Chemistry (1985); Elected Fellow, American Physical Society (1982); Guggenheim Fellow (1981-1982); Elected Fellow, American Association for Advancement of Science (1980); Sloan Fellow (1972-1974). He was an active participant in 50 years of Chemistry & Physics of Liquids Gordon Research Conferences and the founder of the Berkeley Statistical Mechanics Meeting.

David was born on October 15, 1944 in New York, New York to Herbert S. Chandler and Sylvia Brody Chandler. Herbert was a Jewish immigrant, toolmaker, autodidact and self-made businessman who credited his being blacklisted as result of association with the worker’s rights movement in the 1930s for compelling him to build his own businesses. While blacklisted, Herbert spent countless hours at the New York Public Library studying art and befriending artists. He instilled in David a profound love of lithographs and etchings, particularly political art of the modernist era, which David carried with him through his life. Herbert’s influence also instilled in David a strong moral compass and an inexorable drive to succeed. David’s truth was science and he was compelled both to push the scientific community to adapt quickly to new discoveries, and to challenge theories he felt detracted from the truth, regardless of political consequence. He pushed the scientific community to embrace change quickly. He formed unfaltering loyalty to his most respected colleagues, whom he respected first and foremost for their dedication to scientific discovery. He was particularly moved by the plight of scientists facing State repression in their quest for knowledge. Several times he helped colleagues defect or emigrate from countries where they faced persecution.

Despite David’s significant scientific contributions, as a child, he was not expected to academically flourish. He had challenging learning disabilities in an era that afforded little accommodation or understanding. He recalled being classified as cognitively disabled and nearly failing to complete his primary education. As a teenager, instead of in schooling, he invested his creative intellect and built confidence through playing jazz piano and drums, and playing tennis. Jazz and tennis continued as his primary hobbies throughout life. He enjoyed entertaining friends and family by playing piano when they visited, and tried to sneak in a daily match of tennis at the Berkeley Tennis Club, where he was a member for 28 years.

After high school, David blossomed scientifically, despite early naysayers, through sheer will and determination. He began college at Stevens Institute of Technology, and after a year, he transferred to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he both worked hard on academics and played varsity tennis. His tennis coach, Ed Crocker was a great mentor for life, and coached him to use his talents in the most effective way. At MIT, David met Elaine Constance Ackles, a young scientist whom he credited with teaching him to write and inspiring his career, as well as dramatically expanding his culinary horizons. Elaine and David married in college and continued to collaborate scientifically throughout David’s life. Their home always had pages of scientific equations on tables, and their evenings were often filled with impassioned scientific debate and exploration.

David earned a BS in Chemistry from MIT and a PhD in Chemistry from Harvard University. He held professorships at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Champaign and at the University of Pennsylvania before joining the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley in 1986, where he would often wonder how a child whose intellectual promise was so questioned could have grown to work alongside colleagues who were among the best scientists in the world. His sheer determination to conquer his own learning challenges pushed him to push himself, his students, his peers and his family to constantly do better and take on increasingly challenging work. Rest was antithetical to his work ethic; problems were best tackled from their most complex roots; no success was grand enough if questions still remained to be solved.

Elaine, a recently retired physicist, survives David, along with their daughter, automotive technician and shop owner Phoebe Chandler of Oakland, CA, her partner Sue Elderkin and grandchildren Matthew and Mya Elderkin; and daughter, activist attorney Cynthia Chandler of San Leandro, CA, her husband D. Bud Sperman and grandchildren Sophia and Lilah Sperman. David also is survived by his loving sister, renowned attorney and psychiatrist Elsie Chandler of New York City and her husband, attorney Martin Stolar, as well as many cousins.

David’s influence in his field of science carries forward through the over 100 graduate and postdoctoral students he trained and mentored, and through the thousands of scientists influenced by his over 250 published research articles and the regular symposia he founded or contributed to. David’s instrumental textbook, Introduction to Modern Statistical Mechanics (Oxford University Press, USA, 1987), colloquially called “the little green book,” is appreciated by students and specialists alike for its novelty and pedagogy and is considered a must read text in the field. Known for generously mentoring and collaborating with budding scientists, in recent years David invited scientists to join him at his beloved New Hampshire summer home to engage in intensive science retreats, and somewhat mandatory scheduled morning swims and sailing outings, all of which his family lovingly called his “science boot camp.” One of David’s last professional mentoring tasks was encouraging his granddaughter Sophia to secure a chemistry lab internship for summer 2017.

David’s life could not be extracted from his science. It was his calling, his passion, and an important driver. David relentlessly pushed himself to excel and often approached science from unorthodox vantages. Even as he was in his final days of life, his one regret was not finishing papers and research he had in the works. His confidence in the talents of his students and colleagues allowed him peace, knowing his work would be completed and improved upon. David’s intensity, brilliance, creativity, and courage will be missed.

A public Life and Work Celebration will take place at UC Berkeley in June 2017. Details will be posted when finalized.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to support an annual David Chandler Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley which will carry forward his scientific vision. Donations by check may be made out to “UC Berkeley Foundation,” including a note that the gift is for the David Chandler Lecture, and mailed to: College of Chemistry, UC Berkeley, Attn. Katherine Welsh, 420 Latimer, Berkeley, CA 94720-1460. Donations can also be made online via the Give to Berkeley website:  The David Chandler Lecture Fund 

Biographical sketch of David Chandler at the Royal Society website.