Ben-Amotz brings beer and 'Crazy' science together


Ben-Amotz and crowd

Chemistry Prof. Dor Ben-Amotz captivated a crowd of almost 150 with his "Crazy" scientist stories.


With his trademark white goatee and vast knowledge on all aspects of science, Physical Chemistry Prof. Dor Ben-Amotz enthralled about 150 fans of scientific pursuits with his program, “That’s Unbelievable: Crazy Stories About Scientists,” Thursday evening at the Lafayette Brewing Company.

As part of the Science on Tap series that features Purdue University faculty speaking in the comfortable atmosphere of a pub, Ben-Amotz’s talk went beyond his chemistry field to focus on the mavericks of mathematics and the fanatics of physics as well. He started with scientific mysteries like irrational numbers and geometric formulas before spinning stories on some of the odd men who cemented scientific foundations that we still hold true today.

From Josiah Willard Gibbs, the forefather of Ben-Amotz’s physical chemistry field, to James Clerk Maxwell, who formulated electromagnetic theory, to quantum theorist Max Plank, Ben-Amotz found threads between all of these 19th century/early 20th century men of science. While brilliant, these men were breaking new ground and had to passionately prove themselves. Ben-Amotz had his audience bemused and laughing at the retelling of the famous 1895 Lubeck Conference in Germany when German chemist Willhelm Ostwald and Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann “came to heavy blows” over their differing theories on the principles of mechanics and atomic structure.

Ostwald would become the hero of a young Albert Einstein. Ben-Amotz found the evidence of letters a 22-year-old Einstein wrote Ostwald in 1901, pleading with the veteran chemist to read his first published work and to grant him an assistantship. After no reply from three letters, Einstein’s father, Hermann Einstein, wrote Ostwald to please read his son’s work and comment as the young man who would become the most famous physicist ever was “profoundly unhappy with his lack of position” and hopes to “recover his joy in living and working.”

Of course, Einstein would do OK for himself years later but it was Ostwald that was the first to nominate the frizzy-haired scientist a Nobel Prize in 1910. While nominated many times, Einstein wouldn’t win the award until 1921.

Ben-Amotz said there was no evidence of Ostwald ever knowing Einstein from those unrequited letters.

It was just another amazing story behind the theories and successes of science foundation.

Science on Tap is a popular night at the Lafayette Brewing Company. However, Ben-Amotz’s crowd was almost twice the size of a normal night, said Becca Scott, Science on Tap organizer and Biological Sciences graduate student.


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