Theoretical chemist and cherished professor emeritus Robert Harris died Sunday at the age of 85.
Harris joined the campus chemistry department in 1963 as an associate chemistry professor. According to campus chemistry professor Birgitta Whaley, Harris’ close friend and colleague, Harris’ research interests were in molecular structure and dynamics, particularly quantum mechanics.
According to Whaley, Harris, whose earnestness was often accompanied by a sense of humor, sought to entertain a principle curiosity in his research — simply “trying to understand the universe” and finding that “understanding the universe is proving more difficult than anticipated.”
“He was very interested in fundamental questions,” Whaley said. “His enthusiasm, love for fundamental science and willingness to think about new problems and to enjoy research … when I think of him, those are the very positive things I think of.”
Even after his retirement in 2003, Harris remained active in the department as a professor of the graduate school, according to a statement from Douglas Clarke, College of Chemistry dean.
Whaley said Harris continued to support students and often involved himself deeply in research.
“One of the great things about Bob was whatever question he was interested in or we would discuss with him, he would always want to go down to the bottom level to understand where this is really coming from and what we are really looking at,” Whaley said.
According to Whaley, the idea of contributing to research or finding topics that overlapped with his expertise excited Harris and created a fun, engaging scientific relationship between the two colleagues.
Harris carried this enthusiasm beyond theoretical conversations, according to his colleague and campus professor emeritus Robert Bergman, who developed a friendship with Harris later on in his life.
“He retained that sort of iconoclastic personality,” Bergman said. “He was a nice guy and he was very adamant about what he believed was true and what he believed wasn’t true, and was not averse to expressing his opinions.”
Bergman elaborated on Harris’ humor and interest in art, music and theater, describing him as a sort of “Renaissance person” outside the lab.
Campus chemistry professor emeritus William Miller, who co-mentored a project with Harris, admired Harris’ “singular” personality and interesting theoretical work and cherished their conversations, during which they connected over their different backgrounds and perspectives.
Bergman said he would remember Harris for his openness and for their frequent conversations, which transformed them from acquaintances to close friends in only a few years.
“I got to know Bobby better just because he was so willing to share the details of his life and how he felt about all kinds of things,” Bergman said. “That’s probably one of the most interesting things about him, and what I would carry forward as my memory of him.”