MacVicar Day celebrates the chemistry of collaboration

Speakers honor Margaret MacVicar and Robert Silbey

Where there's chemistry, there's often energy, usually in the form of heat lost or gained. Anyone who has ever used an instant ice or heat pack to relieve aching muscles has experienced this relationship between chemistry and energy: When one of these packs is bent in half, chemicals from separate compartments mix together, activating a spontaneous thermodynamic reaction that either releases heat or draws it in, depending on whether the pack is meant to be hot or cold.

This simple example of free energy was a favorite of the late Robert Silbey, a chemistry professor and MIT's former dean of science, who used the therapeutic packs to great effect in his undergraduate thermodynamics class for years. Silbey, who passed away last October, was honored last Friday at MacVicar Day, an annual event held to celebrate the current MacVicar Fellows.

The MacVicar Fellowship was established in 1992 to honor the teaching contributions of Margaret MacVicar '64, ScD '67, MIT's first dean for undergraduate education and founder of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). This year's event paid tribute to both MacVicar and Silbey in a symposium titled "Innovations in Undergraduate Education at MIT."

As a tribute to Silbey's spirit of teaching and collaboration, his colleagues re-enacted part of his favorite thermodynamics lecture, tossing out cold and hot packs to a surprised and delighted audience in Bartos Theatre.

The exercise illustrated not only Silbey's enthusiasm and creativity in teaching, but also his knack for bridging disciplines across the MIT campus: The demonstration was part of a thermodynamics course in which faculty from both the chemistry and biological engineering departments co-taught the material.