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Sheldon Datz: Seeing the big picture

Sheldon Datz

Sheldon Datz's 50-year career as an innovator in the fields of chemistry and atomic physics at ORNL was defined by his knack for seeing the big picture and his ability to synthesize and expand upon developments across diverse disciplines.

In a 1999 interview with the ORNL Reporter, Datz described his mildly eccentric approach to scientific inquiry: "I'm kind of peculiar in that I have moved from one area to another. I started out in chemistry, but as I've seen holes in science, I've tried to fill them, and maybe in not the same way as I filled the last one."

A chemist by training, Datz joined the laboratory's Chemistry Division in 1951 after graduating Columbia University with a B.S. in chemistry and an M.A. in physical chemistry. He received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Tennessee in 1960. He led the Atomic and Molecular Collisions Group in the Chemistry Division from 1960 to 1981. His research interest started drifting toward atomic physics following a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship abroad during 1962-1963.

Early in his career at the lab, Datz and chemist Ellison Taylor developed a novel crossed-molecular-beam technique for studying chemical reactions. These studies pioneered the field of chemical dynamics and laid the foundation for research that led to a Nobel Prize in chemistry for three other scientists in 1986.

One of those scientists, Nobel Laureate John C. Polanyi of the University of Toronto, later observed that "Dr. Datz is a powerhouse of originality and venturesome science."

Datz went on to win the Davisson-Germer Prize in Atomic or Surface Physics in 1998 and the Fermi Award in 2000, along with Sidney Drell of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and Herbert York of the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.

Never stuck in the details

In addition to being an accomplished experimentalist, Datz also served as section head for Atomic Physics at the laboratory for much of his career. He was appointed a corporate fellow in 1979 and a senior corporate fellow in 1987 — testimony to the fact that he successfully combined the two roles.

Physicist Pete Dittner recalls that Datz had a laissez-faire management style.

"I worked for him for quite some time and eventually became a group leader under him," Dittner said. "He had a relaxed style of managing that made him easy to work with. He sort of left you alone and let you do your work. He knew what was going on, but he didn't micromanage."

ORNL physicist Randy Vane echoed that assessment.

"Sheldon was primarily hands-off," Vane said. "He collected together people to satisfy the needs of the group, and then essentially let them go off on their own — with some guidance."

Vane noted that Datz's background in both physics and chemistry made him a valuable resource — particularly for directing the research of younger staff members.

"His background was diverse enough that he knew where things fit in a much broader scientific context," Vane said. "Especially when you're young, the details of a project can hide its relevance to a broader context, but Sheldon was never in that place. He was never stuck in the details."

"He encouraged young scientists," added physicist Herb Krause, who worked with Datz for 30 years. "He rewarded them for doing good research by inviting them to collaborate in his current favorite research area that would expand their scientific horizons."

Idea collector

Krause noted that Datz's energetic disposition was well-suited to bringing people together and collecting their ideas.

"He was interested in what other scientists were doing," Krause said. "And in the course of interaction with them, he made judgments about who was doing good and interesting science. He and his coworkers often imitated the basic ideas of others with innovations that produced good results. He was attracted to talented people doing less popular science, rather than to those working on a more routine, long-beaten path."

Dittner sounded a similar theme, observing that Datz "was able to synthesize things and come up with new ideas — expanding on other people's work and finding new areas to get into."

It took a lot of intellectual firepower to turn those ideas into reality, and Datz developed a reputation for hiring only the most talented people for his research team — and picking collaborators whose specialties and talents complemented his own.

"Relying on other people to produce good science freed him to diversify his interests and be more productive," Krause said.
Performer and visionary

Datz was widely known as a persuasive and entertaining promoter of his section's research portfolio, and those skills were critical to attracting and retaining both sponsors and funding.

"He was a very good salesman for our programs," Krause said, "and he kept DOE Basic Energy Research money coming by communicating with colleagues and DOE managers in terms that they could understand. His salesmanship allowed the researchers associated with him to focus on producing the clever insights that made our research high-quality."

"He was a performer," Vane agreed. "Sheldon had acted in the Oak Ridge Playhouse, so he had a stage presence, and he knew how to present the research in a way that would interest whatever audience he was working with. As you can imagine, that had a significant impact in terms of keeping things funded."

Datz's ability to communicate his vision of the value of his section's R&D to sponsors complemented his gift for recognizing opportunities to extend and expand upon the research of his peers and colleagues.

"Sheldon was a visionary in the sense that he could see the potential — in someone's work in another field, or in a presentation at a meeting — for how that work would fit into the context of atomic physics," Vane said. "It didn't matter whether the experiments were successes or failures. If they were carried out properly and we took the data accurately, then he could find the meaning — publishable meaning — in the results. What that means is that almost all of the work we did was ultimately constructive."

Datz's determination to look further and dig deeper was appreciated by his peers and by those who followed in his footsteps.

"The dynamism and daring that made Datz a pioneer of crossed-beam chemistry quite clearly characterizes the man and all his work," Polyani said.

Datz retired from the laboratory in November 2000.