Theoretical chemist and esteemed professor emeritus Robert Harris died on Sunday at the age of 85.
Harris joined the campus chemistry department in 1963 as an adjunct chemistry professor. According to campus chemistry professor Birgitta Whaley, Harris’ close friend and colleague, Harris’ research interests were in molecular structure and dynamics, particularly quantum mechanics.
According to Whaley, Harris, whose seriousness was often accompanied by a sense of humor, sought to instill a principled curiosity in his research – simply “trying to understand the universe” and found that “understanding the universe is proving more difficult than expected “.
“He was very interested in fundamental issues,” Whaley said. “His enthusiasm, his love of basic science and his willingness to think about new problems and enjoy research… thinking about him, those are the very positive things that come to mind.”
After his retirement in 2003, Harris remained active on the faculty as a graduate school professor, according to Douglas Clarke, dean of the College of Chemistry.
Whaley said Harris continues to support students and is often deeply involved in research.
“One of the great things about Bob was that no matter what question he was interested in or what we were discussing with him, he always wanted to go down to the lowest level to understand where it’s really coming from and what we’re really seeing,” Whaley said.
According to Whaley, the idea of contributing to research or finding topics that intersected with his expertise excited Harris and created a fun, engaging scholarly relationship between the two colleagues.
According to fellow campus professor emeritus Robert Bergman, who developed a friendship with Harris later in life, Harris carried that enthusiasm beyond theoretical conversations.
“He kept that kind of iconoclastic personality,” Bergman said. “He was a nice guy and he was very adamant about what he believed to be true and what he didn’t, and he wasn’t averse to voicing his opinions.”
Bergman elaborated on Harris’ humor and interest in art, music, and theater, describing him as a sort of “Renaissance man” outside of the lab.
Campus Chemistry Professor Emeritus William Miller, who oversaw a project with Harris, admired Harris’ “unique” personality and interesting theoretical work, and appreciated their conversations, in which they shared their different backgrounds and perspectives.
Bergman said he will remember Harris for his outspokenness and their frequent conversations, which transformed them from acquaintances into close friends in just a few short years.
“I got to know Bobby better just because he was so willing to share the details of his life and how he felt about all sorts of things,” Bergman said. “That’s probably one of the most interesting things about him and what I would take with me as my memory of him.”
Contact Ananya Rupanagunta at [email protected]and follow them on Twitter at @arupanagunta.