Nobel laureate Martin Karplus publishes his autobiography

July 6, 2020
Martin Karplus

In "Spinach on the Ceiling," readers travel with Karplus from Nazi-occupied Austria to Caltech and even the kitchen, where he used chemical prowess to master cooking


In 1938, right after the Nazis overpowered Austria, Martin Karplus' family packed what they could and escaped, crossing through Switzerland and France before finding refuge in the United States. Karplus was just 8 years old.

Seventy-five years later, when Karplus was 83, the phone rang too early in the morning. "My initial reaction," Karplus writes, "was that if someone was telephoing at 5:30 in the morning, it was an emergency involving one of my children." His daughter Reba lived in Jerusalem and often called at odd hours, after bombings, to confirm she was OK.

But this time, the call came from Sweden with some of the best news a scientist can receive: Karplus had won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In his 2020 autobiography, "Spinach on the Ceiling: The Multifaceted Life of a Theoretical Chemist," Karplus shares his journey from refugee to Nobel Laureate, from a young boy who "went around bandaging chairlegs" as if they were broken bones to studying under the great Linus Pauling. In the United States, Karplus may have found greater opportunities to pursue research than he would have back in Austria, but it was his grit, quiet confidence, and even serendipity that earned him positions at some of the most prestigious schools in the world, including (we're proud to say) Harvard University. 



"Karplus's tales of a turbulent graduate school experience at Caltech will inspire readers to muster fortitude when everything seems to be spinning out of control. Karplus balances rigorous scientific discussions with refreshing chapters expounding his passion for photography and gastronomy." 

- Alfred Chin, Nature Chemistry, May 2020



"What I have written," Karplus writes in his preface, "provides at best only a fragmentary picture of my life, even of my scientific life." Still, he made sure to include the more than 250 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and visiting faculty who make up "The Karplusians," the scientific children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the lab's cornerstones.

Karplus was no doubt a stellar scientist. Despite naysayers who demeaned his work as a waste of time, he trusted his instincts; his advances ended up forming a cental component of both chemistry and biology. He won his Nobel "for developing a computer-based method for modeling complex chemical systems." But he also worked as a professional chef, gracing the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in France and Spain, and as a world-hopping photographer

“Try new things," Karplus said in a "Harvard Magazine" article, "even if you don’t know if they’ll work.” 

Today, Karplus still lives his own advice. After combining theoretical chemistry with biology, working on molecular dynamics behind big biological questions like oxygen transport in blood, the chemistry of vision, and how proteins fold, he's now working on a new problem: the human immune response to HIV. "What if," he asked in a Harvard Gazette interview, "there were a vaccine someday that conferred a broad-based immunity that keeps ahead of HIV mutations? More generally, for any virus, such as the flu virus, is there a way to confer permanent immunity?" He hopes to, one day, generate antibodies that bind better to the virus, but not so strongly that the antibodies are too specific.


"Martin Karplus' memoir is a treasure, on two related levels. One is that it describes his rise from being a refugee at age 8 from Nazi tyranny, to becoming a great scientist rewarded with a Nobel Prize. On the other level the book offers the wider story of how modern science at the highest is being done, with, in Karplus' case, a humanist's world view."

- Gerald Holton, Harvard University


Although Karplus never realized his childhood wish to become a physician (a decision he and the world surely cannot regret), two of his three children, sisters Reba and Tammy, fulfilled this dream on his behalf. And Mischa, the son of Karplus and his second wife Marci (who also manages his lab), earned multiple degrees in public policy and law. 

"Without my family," Karplus writes, "my life would have been an empty one, even with scientific success."

An e-book verison of his autobiography is available for purchase on Amazon.



See also: Faculty