There’s a whole universe in there
When Michigan Ross professor Shirli Kopelman invited me to her Arb-adjacent deck last fall to meet her father, I could not believe my good fortune. While I have no intellectual understanding of physics, applied or otherwise, I am fascinated by the workings of the universe and would never pass up the opportunity to meet Raoul Kopelman (1933-2023). I knew then what a rare gift it was to share his time; imagine if I could actually speak his “language.”
The world-renowned scientist, who joined the U-M faculty in 1966, was 89 years old when he passed away July 20. He was still teaching in recent months and held the Richard Smalley Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, Applied Physics, Biophysics, Biomedical Engineering, and Chemical Biology at U-M.
I won’t pretend to understand what this means, but Kopelman was an expert on photonics, laser and bioanalytical chemistry, chemical physics, catalysis, nano-materials, and nano-devices. In plain English, he was interested not only in the teeny, tiny, sub-micro particles that comprise our universe. It was the space between the teeny, tiny, sub-micro particles he really cared about.
In a word: Kopelman was nano before nano was cool.
On the cool evening when I met him, the professor was anxiously awaiting the arrival of his one-time student and longtime friend Panos Argyrakis, PhD ’79. Argyrakis was visiting Ann Arbor from Greece’s University of Thessaloniki where he is a professor of computational physics. Kopelman was sure his friend would come with an agenda: the need to solve some conundrum involving molecular crystals, nanoparticles, complex systems, or some other puzzle incomprehensible to the less-evolved brain.
“His eyes are twinkling,” said his daughter, an expert in negotiations. As she filled his water glass, she said, “It’s like he’s getting ready to play and thinking, ‘What will we do when Panos gets here?’”
What do you see?
It’s mind-boggling to consider the dramatic progress in computing since Kopelman first plugged in. He arrived at U-M when the University’s sole computer consumed the entire floor of a building. He pioneered the use of computing in the chemistry department, despite detractors who dubbed the effort “anti-educational.”
Kopelman is perhaps best known for developing the Hoshen-Kopelman algorithm, a simple and efficient algorithm for labeling clusters on a grid, where the grid is a regular network of cells, with the cells being either occupied or unoccupied. The algorithm’s practical application is so widespread in modern technology that scholarly citations of Kopelman’s work still pop up every day on Google Alerts. His 1976 paper “Percolation and Cluster Distribution. I. Cluster Multiple Labeling Technique and Critical Concentration Algorithm” has been cited thousands of times since publication.
Alumni, friends, and colleagues who worked with Kopelman throughout his career represent key advances in computer science: His former students include the Nobel laureates Richard Smalley (for whom his U-M professorship is named), Eric Betzig, Roald Hoffman, and Arieh Warshel.
As he stared down his 90s, Kopelman continued to force scientific breakthroughs in the burgeoning field of nanomedicine, covering novel diagnostic and therapeutic techniques for cancer and heart disease. Implanting nanoparticles that precisely and specifically target and kill dangerous cells, the technology uses noninvasive and otherwise harmless red light, instead of high-energy lasers, X-rays, or gamma rays. With collaborators in the Medical School, he recently applied this technology to treat cancer, as well as heart arrhythmia, in rodents and sheep.
Throughout my encounter with this genius, I marveled at the circumstances that placed me here in casual conversation with one of modern technology’s most brilliant minds. Imagine the scientists who would froth at the chance.
And as I pressed him about his early trailblazing days, I realized Kopelman was more interested in talking about his future. (How inspiring!) He did tell me his family had fled Vienna during World War II to escape the Nazis. They settled in Tel Aviv when Kopelman was five years old.
“I would stare at the night sky and could see galaxies beyond the Milky Way,” he said. But he was always more interested in what he couldn’t see. And when he read The Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov, Kopelman set his sights on the undiscovered and as-yet-unnamed world of nano. The book is about a research crew reduced to a microscopic fraction of their original size, boarding a miniaturized atomic submarine and being injected into a dying man’s carotid artery.
As Kopelman described the latest modern-day breakthrough he helped produce — in which nanoparticles can travel with precision through a patient’s body to directly seek, target, and address a problem – that playful twinkle in his eye returned.
“I just wanted to make a tiny submarine,” he said.
(Lead image: The author never expected to discuss the universe with Raoul Kopelman. And she never expected to stand at midfield in Michigan Stadium either. It’s all in a day’s work for this Spartan working at the University of Michigan. Image: S. Busch.)