Baerends’ Ark

Last week marked the 60th birthday of my Professor, Evert Jan Baerends. To celebrate the event, a meeting of minds was organized, with interesting presentations given by researchers from around the world. The presenters all had some connection to Evert Jan, and were given the opportunity to express their admiration for his contribution to Density Functional Theory (DFT).

The meeting and subsequent dinner got me thinking about the way I see Evert Jan, and the role he has played in my life. Evert Jan was actually the first academic that I contacted in The Netherlands when I was looking to move here. He didn’t have a position for me at the time, but did put me in contact with Geert-Jan Kroes, who offered me a Postdoctoral position. Later, Evert Jan offered me a permanent position in his research group, and I’ve been there ever since. So I’ve got a lot to be thankful to Evert Jan for. Without him, I would probably not be living in The Netherlands, would not be enjoying a career in Theoretical Chemistry, and probably would not be married to Jennifer and have two adored children.

It is obvious that I am indebted to Evert Jan, but how do I view his role in the group? To explain, I need to digress a little: Back in the 1990’s, Steven Spielberg directed his much acclaimed take on the holocaust, Schindler’s List. Not many people know it, but the movie was based on a book by the Australian author Thomas Keneally. Keneally originally called his work “Schindler’s Ark”, a reference to Noah and his efforts to save living things in an entirely different kind of holocaust. One of the masterful aspects of Keneally’s book is the ambiguity that he imbues the character of Oscar Schindler with. Is he a good man, saving Jews from the Nazis, or is he a businessman exploiting the most vulnerable in society? Or is it both?

What does this have to do with Evert Jan Baerends? Well, in many ways I see Evert Jan as the Oscar Schindler of Theoretical Chemistry. He has built up a large group of researchers, many of whom may have been destined for the intellectual wasteland of industry. I myself spent 6 months writing software for a private firm, before Evert Jan added me to his list, rescuing me from a tedious — though unquestionably more lucrative — future. And I’m not the only one. Somehow, Evert Jan finds a way to sneak good theoreticians into his group, whether by orthodox means or otherwise.

A case in point is Scientific Computing and Modeling (SCM), the company that Evert Jan set up to support and sell the Amsterdam Density Functional (ADF) package. SCM now employs four very talented theoretical chemists; without the company, there would be four less positions for Theoretical Chemists in the world, and some of the people now in its service may not have been able to find a University position.

University lectureships are only suited to a small number of scientists: those not only good in science, but also with an interest/talent for teaching, and managerial tendencies. It is not a given that those that end up in lecturing positions are the most talented scientists, and a lot of good scientists without an interest in management or education are forced to leave academia, and are wasted to the scientific world. Evert Jan seems to realize this, and has managed to retain many Theoretical Chemists that would be unsuitable as lecturers, but are otherwise first rate scientists.

Of course, just as with Oscar Schindler, it is a two-way street — Evert Jan also benefits from his ark. The scientists in his group have made it one of the best performing Chemistry groups in The Netherlands, so you needn’t feel sorry for him. Just as for Schindler, the question of whether he is a charitable man, or a exploitative one, or both, is of no practical concern. The results speak for themselves.

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One Response to Baerends’ Ark

  1. Drew,
    Great characterization of Professor Baerends. I’d never noticed the similarities between him and Oscar Schindler, but now that you mentioned it, it’s really quite obvious.
    An another note, welcome to the weblogging community. Enjoy!