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Harold Urey

Born on 29 April 1893 in Walkerton, Indiana, Harold Urey was a physical chemist who discovered deuterium, participated in the Manhattan Project, and was a major proponent of the early US space program. After earning his bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Montana in 1917, Urey worked as a chemist during World War I. He then returned to school, earning his PhD in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1923. Following a fellowship at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen and a stint working in the chemistry department at Johns Hopkins University, Urey accepted a position in 1929 as an associate professor at Columbia University. There he pursued both experimental and theoretical research, the former centered on spectroscopy and the latter on nuclear stability, atomic nuclei classification, and isotope separation. His discovery of the hydrogen isotope deuterium in 1931 led to his receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry three years later. In 1933 Urey founded and became the first editor of the Journal of Chemical Physics. During World War II, Urey participated in the Manhattan Project, for which he worked to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238 for use in the atomic bomb. Disillusioned by the military applications of his research, Urey moved at war’s end to the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago, where he developed an interest in the origin of the solar system. His 1952 book, The Planets, launched the modern science of chemical cosmology. He also conducted a famous experiment with chemist Stanley Miller that demonstrated how simple compounds in Earth’s early atmosphere, when exposed to electricity and water, could have formed amino acids and other biomolecules. After retiring in 1958, Urey became a professor at large at UC San Diego, where he continued his research in the planetary sciences and worked to help persuade the newly formed NASA to undertake the Apollo program of lunar exploration. Besides the Nobel, Urey went on to receive numerous honors and awards, including the National Medal of Science in 1964, and belonged to many professional associations, such as the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He died in 1981 at age 87. (Photo credit: Ossip Garber Studio, New York, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Urey Collection)

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