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Bridges to the Future

This is truly one world. If nothing else, the pandemic should have taught us that, and we need to realize that the biggest problems of our time provide the biggest opportunities and demand international solutions. The death of the well-known author and historian Martin Sherwin earlier this month powerfully reminded me of this, for he was truly ahead of his time.

Mr. Sherwin, whose best-known work was the Pulitzer-Prize winning book he wrote with Kai Bird, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005) also had an impact on Bowling Green State University, and on me, Bowling Green State University, and the discipline whose name I invented – the photochemical sciences.

This all began back in the late 1980s, when dramatic change was happening all across what we used to think of as the “eastern bloc.” Professor Sherwin began international programs of communication between undergraduate students at Tufts University, where he then taught, and the Mendeleev University for Chemical Technology in Moscow. Whatever their faults, the Russians are great about remembering scientific names past with their organizations, and Dmitri Mendeleev is widely credited with inventing the first periodic table.

So even if most readers won’t know his name, they’ll know his work; nothing is more omnipresent in science classrooms than those iconic periodic tables of the elements.

Cross-cultural cooperation wasn’t easy then. There was no internet, even the smartest phones were tethered to the wall, and there was a lot of lingering Cold War fears. Professor Sherwin arranged with colleagues in Moscow a time when Mendeleev students could talk with Tufts students by satellite about a critical issue in which they were all interested: Food.

The program was a huge success, but Professor Sherwin was busy finishing a book and swamped with work. So he asked his colleague, the distinguished historian Lawrence Friedman at BGSU if our school would like to take it over.

Then-President Paul Olscamp was all for it, and take it over BG did.

However, university-to-university relationships are always bureaucratic at some level, so Olscamp asked me, as a chemist, if I would go with him to the institute in Moscow to sign the agreement.

So in October, 1990, Mr. Friedman, then-chair of the BGSU board Dick Newlove, President Olscamp and I flew to Moscow via London to make the arrangements, I’d been in several eastern bloc countries before, and in the bad old days of Communism there was reason to be nervous. But when we arrived in Moscow the young guards smiled at us and waved us through.

I thought that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s new openness, a policy called glasnost, was really taking hold. There were plenty of other scientists around. I made great new friends, not only at Mendeleev but at the Soviet (now Russian) Institute for Physical Chemistry.

Finally, in the fall of 1991 the first session of the “space bridge” between BG and Mendeleyev students occurred -- this time on global warming, and our doctoral program at the Center for Photochemical Sciences admitted the first group of four students from Mendeleyev. They all earned their Ph.Ds, and are professors and research scientists in various parts of America now, and they were followed by many more Mendeleyev students.

The Russians were, I have to say, better in math and physics than many American students, and they helped give our program its initial successes.

Where are they now? Several have successful businesses in the United States. Others teach in local universities, and still more work for companies from Maine to California. At least one is working for the National Institutes of Health laboratory in Frederick, Maryland, studying SARS viruses.

And all have become U.S. citizens.

A few years later Professor Sherwin and I met at the 75th anniversary of Mendeleyev in Moscow and I learned a bit about him. Born in 1937, he was consumed with the nuclear arms race even as an undergraduate, and he managed to break down barriers in the Soviet establishment that got him access to many records. He also formed collaborative friendships, one with Professor Natalia Tarasova, who now is in charge of investigating the problems of sustainable development at Mendeleyev.

They put the space bridge together and when I went there a few years later, we set up the program that led to Mendeleyev students coming to Bowling Green, a program that continued until an incompetent BGSU administrator ruined things, and the Russians shut the door to further student applications.

Eventually Professor Sherwin and Professor Tarasova, who became president of IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, received honorary degrees from BG. And I was named an Honorary UNESCO professor at Mendeleyev. IUPAC is the organization that approves every new addition made to the periodic table,

Natalia told me just recently that our honorary degree from us was her first of many. When I went to Moscow for the UNESCO ceremony, I took several copies of the late Richard Rhodes’ 1995 book Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb to the director of the Kurchatov Institute there.

Kurchatov was the Soviet Union’s Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb and I signed the guest book at the Institute right under Teller’s signature.

That was a long time ago. Today, governments are more likely to be at odds over oil than ideology. But nations and peoples are still too dangerously ignorant of each other, and we need more ways to build international understanding

Martin Sherwin, I know, would agree.

Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, a distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University, Follow him at 3dscienceblog,com

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