Harold Urey and the famous Miller–Urey experiment

Harold Urey

Harold Urey

On April 29, 1893American physical chemist and Nobel Laureatev Harold C. Urey was born. He played a significant role in the development of the atom bomb, but may be most prominent for his contribution to theories on the development of organic life from non-living matter.

Harold Clayton Urey entered the University of Montana in 1914 and received his Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology in 1917. A few years later, he returned to Montana as an instructor in Chemistry and entered the University of California to work under Professor Lewis in 1921. Urey was awarded the degree of Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1923. Urey later worked in Copenhagen at Professor Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics as American-Scandinavian Foundation Fellow to Denmark and on his return to the United States he became an Associate in Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. Urey became professor in Chemistry at Columbia University in the 1930s and moved to the Institute for Nuclear Studies, University of Chicago in 1945 as Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry. In 1958, he took his post as Professor-at-Large, University of California.

Harold Urey helped to develop the field of cosmochemistry in his later career. He is also credited with coining the term. Urey’s work on oxygen-18 led him to develop theories about the abundance of the chemical elements on earth, and of their abundance and evolution in the stars. His work was summarized in The Planets: Their Origin and Development, published in 1952. The scientist speculated that the early terrestrial atmosphere was probably composed of ammonia, methane, and hydrogen. One of his Chicago graduate students, Stanley L. Miller, showed in the Miller–Urey experiment that, if such a mixture be exposed to electric sparks and to water, it can interact to produce amino acids, commonly considered the building blocks of life.

Apart from his Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Harold Urey was also awarded the Willard Gibbs Medal, the Davy Medal, the Medal of Merit, and many more. He is author of many books including Atoms, Molecules and Quanta, published in 1930. Urey was editor of the Journal of Chemical Physics during 1933-1940 and has written numerous papers on the structure of atoms and molecules, the discovery of heavy hydrogen and its properties, separation of isotopes, measurement of paleotemperatures and the origin of planets. These have been published in many different chemical journals.

At yovisto you can learn more about Earth History in the Broadest Possible Context in a lecture by Walter Alvarez.

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