Somorjai, who is regarded by his peers as the father of modern surface
chemistry, becomes only the 23rd individual in the UC system to be
honored with this prestigious title and the 10th from the UC Berkeley
campus. To quote from UC President Richard Atkinson, "The title University
Professor is reserved for scholars of international distinction who
are recognized and respected teachers with exceptional ability."
This appointment is a way to share their talents with all of the
campuses within the UC system and is effective for five to 10 years.
He was appointed to this elite academic rank by the UC Regents at their
News of the University Professor appointment came to Somorjai on
"I received an ordinary envelope from the Office of the President
on a Saturday," he said. "I knew that I had been nominated, but the
actual appointment came out of the blue. I feel very honored. I had
a bottle of champagne with my wife to celebrate."
Born in Hungary in 1935, Somorjai was a fourth-year chemical engineering
student at the Technical University in Budapest when the Hungarian
Revolution began in 1956. He left Hungary and immigrated to the United
States, enrolling in graduate school at UC Berkeley in 1957, along
with some 50 other students from Hungary. He received his PhD in 1960
in chemistry and joined the research staff of IBM, in Yorktown Heights,
N.Y., where he worked until he returned to UC Berkeley as an assistant
professor in 1964.
Somorjai has spent almost 40 years studying the chemistry of surfaces.
Even though surfaces are literally everywhere, there was not much scientific
data on their structure, composition and reactivity on a molecular
level when Somorjai began studying them. The sheer volume of surfaces
available to study meant he had to choose his projects carefully. His
approach was to work with simple surfaces - those of a single, uniform
metal crystal - and discover how chemical reactions occur on them.
He could then extrapolate his findings to more complex surfaces like
those used in industrial reactions.
"We developed a large number of techniques and instrumentation to
study reactions at the molecular level on single crystal surfaces,"
He discovered that atoms on a crystal surface rearrange into geometries
that are different from those in the bulk of the material and that
this occurs in such diverse substances as platinum, gold, ice and sodium
"We found that rough surfaces do a lot of chemistry and that chemical
reactions take place at surface defects, the atomic steps and kinks
of a surface," he said. He also found that a metal's reactivity correlates
with the mobility of its surface atoms. This is because atoms on the
surface of a metal catalyst have to relocate when reacting molecules
adsorb onto them. Recognizing this, he looked at the selective adsorption
of chemicals on surfaces and how a single crystal surface can catalyze
many different reactions.
"Surfaces are flexible in their activity," said Somorjai. "The same
surface can catalyze different reactions depending on the chemicals
that are added."
Some of his current research projects include studies of friction.
As devices shrink down to the nanoscale, friction and associated heating
become significant problems. And despite centuries of scientific study,
the basics are still poorly understood.
"We are still learning how ice is slippery and how concrete is not,"
He also studies the chemical and mechanical properties of polymer
surfaces. "As we understand the structure and bonding of simpler surfaces,
we are ready to tackle more complex systems," he said. "Surface science
has moved from physics to chemistry in the past 25 years, overlapping
my scientific career. The field is now moving into biology and we now
study polymer-liquid interfaces on the molecular level. After all,
the human body is really a walking biopolymer-liquid interface system."
Through his research, Somorjai has educated a generation of leading
scientists. Out of the more than 110 PhD students and 150 postdoctoral
fellows he has mentored, 60 hold faculty positions, a fact of which
he is very proud.
"The outstanding graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who come
to Berkeley tend to be very creative and do high quality research,"
Somorjai is the author of more than 850 scientific papers in the
fields of surface chemistry and heterogeneous catalysis, and has written
three textbooks. He has been highly decorated for his research innovations
and has received numerous honorary doctorates from universities worldwide.
In 1998, he received the Wolf Prize in Chemistry; he was elected to
the National Academy of Sciences in 1979 and to the American Academy
of Arts and Sciences in 1983.
In addition to his position in the chemistry department, he is a
senior scientist of the materials science division and group leader
of the surface science and catalysis program at the Lawrence Berkeley