51. “Absent-Minded” Hubert Alyea   

 


Chemistry professor Hubert Alyea ’24 *28 was a perennial favorite of undergraduates during his forty years of teaching at Princeton.  Every year, he demonstrated the crowd-pleasing “Old Nassau Reaction” during his final course lecture, in which the mixing of appropriate chemicals created a solution that turned orange and black.  Alyea’s passion for science, flair for showmanship and famed pyrotechnic experiments drew science and non-science majors alike to his early morning lectures, while prompting Russian observers of his demonstrations at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 to bestow him with the nickname “Dr. Boom.”  Walt Disney witnessed Alyea in action at the same exhibition and used the chemist’s flamboyant personality as a model for the title character in The Absent-Minded Professor.  Alyea was far from inattentive and impractical, however; he was actually a great innovator in the field of science education.  He developed the TOPS system—inexpensive kits of equipment capable of producing colorful demonstrations of chemical principles—that has been used in thousands of high schools and colleges around the world and has proven particularly useful in developing nations.  He also invented the domino board, to illustrate the nature of chain reactions, as well as the automatic projection slide changer, a technology that was quickly adapted by camera companies.

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