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Irwin Oppenheim, professor emeritus of chemistry, dies at 84

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Irwin Oppenheim
Irwin Oppenheim
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MIT professor emeritus of chemistry Irwin Oppenheim, 84, of Cambridge, passed away on June 3 from complications following cardiac surgery.

Oppenheim carried out his undergraduate studies in chemistry and physics at Harvard University, graduating summa cum laude in 1949. He attended graduate school at the California Institute of Technology under John Gamble Kirkwood; when Kirkwood left for Yale University, Oppenheim followed him, completing his PhD in physical chemistry in 1956. His thesis research involved some of the first usage of the Wigner functions and expansion in powers of Planck’s constant to develop quantum corrections to classical distribution functions. These distribution functions were then exploited to deduce thermodynamic properties and transport coefficients.

Oppenheim joined MIT's Department of Chemistry in 1961 as an associate professor — notably, its first theoretical chemist. He was promoted to full professor in 1965.

Oppenheim’s research at MIT concentrated on a molecular description of relaxation phenomena in gases and liquids; he, his students, and collaborators made many important contributions to the field.

“One important contribution is his explanation of the origin of the 'long time tails' unexpectedly observed in early molecular dynamics simulations of the correlation function of the viscosity of gases,” says Institute Professor emeritus John M. Deutch, who was Oppenheim’s second PhD student. “He improved our understanding of the microscopic basis of hydrodynamics, Brownian motion, light scattering, [and] magnetic resonance, and this work influenced thinking about these topics throughout the world. He was an expert on chemical thermodynamics and wrote two books on this subject."

"With his passing, an important index [of] human civilization – 'global aggregate knowledge of chemical thermodynamics' — has declined 65 percent," Deutch adds. "Given all of Irwin’s contributions, I have thought for some time that his work has not received the recognition it should from the scientific community.” 

During his lifetime, Oppenheim published 247 publications. In 1996, he assumed emeritus status, but remained active in the Department of Chemistry until his death.  

Oppenheim was an excellent teacher, colleagues say, who taught decades of MIT undergraduate and graduate students introductory physical chemistry and statistical thermodynamics. He was an inspired PhD thesis and postdoctoral advisor to more than 50 individuals, many of whom went on to university positions across the world, and some at MIT. His warm mentoring ensured decades of devotion and friendship from his students. 

“Irwin was a master in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. His theory was marked by rigor and elegance, and has influenced a generation of theorists,” says professor of chemistry Jianshu Cao, who in teaching 5.72 (Non-Equilibrium Statistical Mechanics), would invite Oppenheim to present a week of lectures in exchange for a visit to a Chinese restaurant. “Irwin had a free choice of topics for the week, but always presented his version of Brownian dynamics theory. These lectures were delivered with precision and clarity, rarely seen in a classroom these days. Except for a few hardcore theory students, it was a challenge to follow his equations that covered the blackboard like wallpaper, but every student left in awe of this grand master and the classic style he exemplified.”

David Chandler ’66, a former undergraduate student of Oppenheim’s who is now the Bruce Mahan Professor of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, says, “Of all the wonderful teachers I learned from at MIT, Irwin Oppenheim influenced me the most. My textbook borrows from his pedagogical style, and my research career began on the road he paved for me. I owe much to him, and I will miss him greatly.”

Throughout this career, Oppenheim collaborated with colleagues across the globe — notably from Japan, Israel, and the Netherlands. His Dutch coworkers — Nico van Kampen, Peter Mazur, Ubbo Felderhof, and Dick Bedeaux — often visited MIT, resulting in friendships and collaboration with many members of the department.

“Irwin Oppenheim was an exceptional colleague and friend, an erudite master of the subtleties of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics,” says Jim Kinsey, who served as head of the Department of Chemistry from 1977 to 1982. “His originality and scholarship, along with his jovial enjoyment of good food, good drink, and good company, made him a magnet for outstanding visitors from all over the globe.”  

“It was always fun to stop by his office and have a moment of revelation,” Cao says, noting Oppenheim’s warm, fun-loving disposition. “Irwin had a high standard for science, but he would always express his opinion with a good sense of humor and a few loud laughs. After lunch, Irwin used to have an afternoon cigar, and sometimes asked me to join him. Though not a fan of cigars, I would happily listen to his jokes and wise comments. In recent years, he became less critical about science but still possessed a sharp mind and quick wit. I have fond memories of these light moments and will miss him dearly.”

“Irwin was my 'academic grandfather,' and he treated me like family from the moment I walked in the door of MIT almost one year ago," says Adam Willard, an assistant professor of chemistry. "We talked frequently, sometimes about science — he was truly a master thermodynamicist — but quite often about all those important nonscientific aspects of life. He was a great listener, unusually wise, and had a fantastic sense of humor. His presence here will be sorely missed.”

Irwin Oppenheim was born in Boston in 1929 to James and Rose (Rosenberg) Oppenheim. He was an only child, but grew up in the company of many aunts, uncles, and cousins. He married Bernice Buresh in 1974. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Joshua Buresh-Oppenheim, a daughter-in-law, Rachel Schorr Hirsch, and a granddaughter, Rosalind Iona Hirsch Oppenheim.

Oppenheim was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society, a member of the Washington Academy of Science, and the recipient of the American Chemical Society's Joel Henry Hildebrand Award. 

“Irwin was a positive part of my life, both professionally and personally, for 65 years," says Institute Professor emeritus John Waugh. "I loved and respected him. My world will be smaller, bereft of his wonderful spirit and bonhomie.”

A memorial service will take place on Saturday, Nov. 1, at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass. Click here for more information.

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