Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Harold Clayton Urey
Harold Clayton Urey "I do not think we should intentionally lose the armaments race; to do this will be to lose our liberties and, with Patrick Henry, I value my liberties more than my life."

Harold Clayton Urey (1893–1981)
Faculty 1929-45
ScD 1946 (hon.)

Harold C. Urey received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1934 for his discovery of deuterium, an essential component of thermonuclear weaponry and nuclear-powered reactors. In a long and varied career, he contributed to significant advances in the fields of physical chemistry and geochemistry, and is credited with being the founder of "cosmochemistry," the term he coined to describe the field of modern lunar science, for his speculations and deductions about the moon's geology. He conducted fundamental work on the structure of atoms and molecules, the thermodynamic properties of gases, and the separation of isotopes. In the late 1940s, he invented the methods now universally used to analyze climate warming and cooling cycles. In 1953, he and PhD student Stanley Miller performed an experiment in which they were able to form four amino acids, the basic building blocks of contemporary life forms on Earth. Their success transformed research on the origins of life.

Urey came to Columbia in 1929 after five years at Johns Hopkins, preceded by a year studying quantum theory with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. While on the Columbia faculty, Urey co-wrote Atoms, Molecules, and Quanta (1930), was founding editor of the Journal of Chemical Physics, and chaired the chemistry department from 1939 to 1942. He used his Nobel Prize money for support of his own research, as well as I.I. Rabi's work on molecular beams. During World War II, Urey was director of war research for the Manhattan Project, leading isotope separation studies in Havemeyer Hall. He left in 1945 to move to the University of Chicago, where he began to cultivate his interests in the chemistry of the planets. In 1957, at age 65, Urey moved to the University of California at San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In an active retirement, he published more than 100 papers and helped to build UCSD into a leading research university.

Read more about Urey in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

Urey's 1934 prize.


Columbia chemistry lab.


Big Science and the Atom Bomb.

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