Joel Bowman's view from the top of theoretical chemistry

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Aug. 29, 2013

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"Imagine how sensational it would be if we could predict where and when a cloud will form," says Joel Bowman. Emory Photo/Video.

As Joel Bowman flew across the country recently, on his way to collect the Herschbach Prize for theoretical chemistry, his attention turned to the clouds outside the jet’s window. What’s happening at the molecular level, he wondered, in a cloud at 30,000 feet?

“As we all know, clouds are essentially water in the gaseous state,” says Bowman, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at Emory. “And, of course, it’s really cold at that altitude. So why do you find clouds at sub-zero temperatures? It’s an obvious but interesting question. The answer certainly has something to do with energy the cloud has absorbed from the sun and with potential energy surfaces: The delicate, attractive forces holding little water molecules together.”

Bowman’s work on developing potential energy surfaces is just one example of why he received the Herschbach Prize for Theory, presented in July at the Dynamics of Molecular Collisions 2013 Conference. The prize is named for Nobel Prize winning chemist Dudley Herschbach, who describes the award’s criteria as “bold and architectural work” that “addresses fundamental, challenging, frontier questions … and typically excites evangelical fervor that recruits many followers.”

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