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DAL’s ‘Sidney Crosby’ Of Chemistry Wins $1-Million Science Prize

The winner of this year’s $1-million Herzberg gold medal is a superstar in the field of chemistry.

Shy and famously unassuming, Dalhousie University’s Axel Becke was to receive the award — one of many he has received in his 30-year career — during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Tuesday night.

“I know he’ll feel very uncomfortable in that environment and would rather be back in Halifax, sitting at his desk and thinking about the big problem,” said Dr. Russell Boyd, a professor emeritus at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Boyd commented early Tuesday from his home in Vancouver. Now retired, he was chemistry department head at Dalhousie and counts himself among Becke’s biggest admirers.

“Axel is like Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky at the top of his game,” said Boyd.

Becke’s refinements of something called the density functional theory of electronic structure have meant its applications within the field of chemistry are almost limitless.

His refinements also propelled the much-vaunted chemist to the ranks of those considered Nobel-Prize candidates.

“A lot of people think he stands (in those ranks) and he certainly does Nobel Prize-level research — he’s of that calibre,” said Boyd.

For his part, Becke is no media hound and compelled Dalhousie University’s public relations staff to keep reporters at bay.

Boyd insists Becke is an exquisite communicator who is a natural teacher and is a much-sought-after conference speaker.

“He’s so good at explaining elementary stuff and is in charge of advising undergraduates,” Boyd said.

So he’s no prima donna. Why not capitalize on all the publicity?

It appears Becke really does shun the spotlight.

Moreover, he has no interest in the commercial applications of his work.

“In our field, there (is) certain software, it’s worth a lot of money. But he has no interest in the commercial side of things,” Boyd offered.

Becke did offer up some comments on his favourite subject — density functional theory — for release by the university’s public relations people.

“DFT is beautifully simple, beautifully intuitive, and it’s much faster than the traditional non-DFT methods of calculating the properties of chemical systems. But to make it accurate, you have to crack the ‘holy grail’ of density functional theory: the so-called ‘exchange-correlation energy,’” Becke said in a Dal news release Tuesday.

The Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for science and engineering, from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, is probably the most prestigious research award in Canada.

Becke is using the prize money to create a chemistry chair at the university and lure a theoretical and computational scientist away from the University of California (Merced) who he describes as “one of the best young theorists in the world.”

Dr. Erin Johnson is one of Becke’s former students. Boyd said anyone with her background would be champing at the bit to work with Becke.

“A lot of people would wonder why she would leave U of C to come to Nova Scotia, but once they hear she’d be working with Axel, they understand,” said Boyd.

During his career, Becke has also received the theoretical chemistry award of the American Chemical Society and was a medallist of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science and the World Association of Theoretical and Computational Chemists.

The professor is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Royal Society of London and a recipient of a Canada Council Killam Research Fellowship.

In the field of chemistry, Becke is one of the most referenced researchers, with over 100,000 citations. Nature magazine names two of his articles among the top 25 most cited papers of all time and in all scientific disciplines.

This is the second year in a row that a Dalhousie researcher has won the Herzberg award. Molecular biologist Ford Doolittle won last year.