George C. Pimentel was born in California in 1922. He received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from UCLA in in 1943. The same year, he joined the Manhattan Project at Berkeley. When he understood the implications of the project, he enlisted in the Navy and served until 1946. At that time he returned to Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D., which he earned in 1949. Upon graduation, he became a professor there, where he stayed for the rest of his career.
His work in the 1950’s allowed for spectroscopic study to emerge. The following decade, his work with fast reactions “unlocked the secret for converting chemical energy directly into laser light.” His continued work with spectroscopy led to important astronomical findings on Mars and with Mariners 6 and 7. His interest in space exploration developed through this work, and he applied to enter into the scientist-astronaut program. He was ranked first after the physical and intellectual tests from the National Academy of Science, but an abnormality in his retina prevented him from joining NASA.
In addition to these achievements, Pimentel is perhaps most well-known for his contributions to the CHEM STUDY project, which sought to improve chemistry instruction in American high schools. He was largely responsible for the writing and publication of Chemistry: An Experimental Science, which was used in nearly every chemistry classroom in the U.S. and abroad.
He served as Director of the Laboratory of Chemical Dynamics and Associate Director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He served as Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation from 1977 to 1980. He was also the 1986 President of the American Chemical Society. Pimentel has received Israel’s Wolf Prize, the National Medal of Science, the Welch Award, and the Priestly Medal, OSA’s 1980 Ellis R. Lippincott Award, and more. He was a Fellow of OSA.
Pimentel passed away in 1989.