Issue Date: February 22, 2010
Arthur C. Cope Award: Robert A. Moss
“A giant in the field of experimental physical-organic chemistry,” “a world leader in the chemistry of reactive intermediates,” “a world-class researcher and scholar.” These are but a few of the accolades colleagues use in describing Robert A. Moss, the Louis P. Hammett Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Rutgers University, in New Jersey.
In a career spanning more than five decades, Moss delved into several major areas of chemistry but is probably best known for advancing the understanding of reactive intermediates, especially of carbenes. Among his pioneering contributions is the first use, together with Nicholas J. Turro of Columbia University, of laser flash photolysis to study singlet carbene reactions. With this tool, Moss says, “rather than look at the footprints of intermediates, we can see the beasts themselves.”
“The Moss laboratory provided the experimental and theoretical framework for the understanding of the structure-reactivity dependence of singlet carbenes, affording a unified spectrum of reactivity that melds fast absolute kinetics and relative rate measurements, as well as frontier molecular orbital theory and ab initio calculations,” Matthew S. Platz of Ohio State University says.
Moss “opened the field of carbene chemistry in a way that could not have been imagined when he started,” Ronald Breslow of Columbia University says.
“From meticulously conceived experiments probing the kinetics and isotope effects of carbenes, he went on to their detection. This body of work is a landmark achievement,” Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University adds.
Two other major areas of research are chemistry in aggregated systems and the destruction of nerve agents. Chemical methods Moss developed to study site-specific reactions in liposomes led to the first systematic correlation between lipid molecular structure and intraliposomal dynamics. His discovery of the nucleophilic properties of iodosylbenzoate led to reagents that can destroy the chemical warfare agents sarin and soman. More recently, he discovered lanthanide, actinide, and transition-metal catalysts that can help remediate nerve-agent contamination.
“Moss has some of the very best catalysts for the decomposition of nerve gases,” Breslow says. Recognizing Moss with the Cope Scholar Award will “help remind the public that chemists play a major role in developing defenses against weapons of mass destruction,” he adds.
Moss says he’s proudest of the “breadth of what we have accomplished.” These accomplishments have earned him numerous awards, including a National Science Foundation Creativity Award in 2007. Moss is also author or coauthor of more than 400 publications and editor or coeditor of seven books, including “Reactive Intermediate Chemistry,” published in 2004. It “is the principal reference work in the field” of reactive intermediates and carbenes, Breslow says.
Moss, 69, received a B.S. degree from Brooklyn College in 1960 and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago in 1962 and 1963, respectively. After a postdoc with Breslow, Moss joined Rutgers in 1964 as an assistant professor and rose through the ranks. He retired in 2006, but with funding from NSF and the Petroleum Research Fund, he continues doing research at Rutgers as a research professor.
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