Symposium held for Silbey's 65th birthday

Dean of Science Robert J. Silbey was honored with a two-day symposium June 24 and 25 to celebrate his 65th birthday.

Organized over a period of about 18 months by Silbey's former graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, the "Theory for Experimentalists" symposium featured research talks on such topics as "The Encoding of Architecture in Protein Sequences" (given by Shalom Rackovsky, a Silbey grad student from 1969-1973) and "Ergodicity Breaking in Single Molecule Spectroscopy" (by Eli Barkai, a Silbey postdoc from 1998-2001).

The event drew more than 70 people from all over the country and the world to MIT's Stata Center, where two large bulletin boards featured photos, reminiscences and letters of best wishes to Silbey.

"It was like a large family gathering," said Silbey, who noted that invitations went both to former students and to "other scientists I had collaborated with over the past 40 years."

The event culminated in a dinner Saturday, which featured "roast"-type speeches by, among others, Institute Professor John Deutch; MIT Professors Irwin Oppenheim, Keith Nelson and Sylvia Ceyer, all of chemistry; Professor Bruce Berne of Columbia University; Professor Jim Kinsey of Rice University in Houston (head of MIT's chemistry department from 1977-1982); Professor Hans van Himbergen of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands; and Professor Phil Pechukas of Columbia University, according to Ceyer and Professor Robert W. Field of chemistry.

Ceyer presented Silbey with a book of letters and pictures. She said, "My favorite quote in the book was provided by Professor Jeff Cina from the University of Oregon, who was a postdoc with Silbey from 1985-87. He wrote, 'When I told a postdoc at the time that I'd been in contact with Bob Silbey, he said "You know Bob Silbey, that's like knowing Schrodinger. He's so famous, I assumed he was dead!' "

Silbey's influence was evident in the list of 27 graduate students and 37 postdocs mentored by Silbey since 1966, which was given out to attendees. The list showed many hold professorships themselves now, at such prestigious universities as Columbia, Tufts, Brandeis, Carnegie Mellon and the University of California--or abroad, at Tel Aviv University in Israel, the University of Madrid in Spain, Nagoya University in Japan, and elsewhere. Yet others are working for such companies as BMW, Oracle and General Motors.

Vera Spanos, Silbey's longtime secretary who retired from MIT 15 years ago, was also in attendance, Ceyer said.

Silbey has been a professor of chemistry at MIT for 39 years. He was appointed Class of '42 Professor of Chemistry in 1989. He became the dean of the School of Science in 2000. His wife, Susan, is an MIT professor of anthropology.

By Kathryn O'Neill
Published on MIT News Office site on June 29, 2005

Robert Silbey