Hubert Alyea

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Hubert Newcombe Alyea (1903-1996) was a professor of chemistry at Princeton University. His explosive chemistry demonstrations earned him the nickname "Dr. Boom." He was famous around the world for his “zany, eccentric” public lectures on science, which “were as much performance as professorship”.[1] Alyea served as inspiration for the title character in the 1961 film The Absent-Minded Professor.

In 1984 he received the Joseph Priestley award.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Alyea was born in Clifton, New Jersey, on October 10, 1903. He entered Princeton at age 15, but at 19 he contracted polio and spent a year in bed, a time that he reportedly described as “a time of great inner reflection” during which “he emerged with a strong commitment to accomplish something with his life that would contribute to the good of humanity.” After his return to Princeton to complete his undergraduate education, he took chemistry courses, but also many English courses. During these years he also played the cello for the Triangle Club and became a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

After he earned an A.B. in chemistry from Princeton “with highest honors” in 1925, he spent a year at the Nobel Institute in Stockholm, where he was an American-Scandinavian Fellow of the General Electric Company, studying under Dr. Svante August Arrhenius. Alyea's project at the time concerned the idea of a free atom, a concept that many chemists scoffed at but that reportedly interested Arrhenius. Alyea said that Arrhenius “spread joy in the lab".

He then returned to Princeton for graduate study, receiving an A.M. in chemistry in 1926 and serving as a Proctor Fellow at Princeton in 1927-28. He was awarded a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1928.

He then spent brief periods at the University of Minnesota, where, as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow, he studied the chemical effects of radium, and at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institut in Berlin-Dahlem, where, as an International Research Fellow, he studied the kinetics of gas explosion. He returned to Princeton in 1930 to take up the position of instructor in chemistry. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1934, associate professor in 1944, and full professor in 1954. He retired in 1972, whereafter he bore the title of Professor Emeritus.

Among his many research interests were chemical kinetics, chain reactions, and the mechanism of inhibition.

Career at Princeton[edit]

Alyea taught at Princeton from 1930 to 1972. Described as one of the university's “most popular faculty members of the mid-20th century, Alyea became well known at that institution for lively and captivating demonstrations that sometimes resulted in explosions that would singe his clothing.

He regularly taught the Chemistry 104 course at Princeton, and he concluded every semester of the course with the same lecture, which was regarded as “spectacular” and which “was famous throughout his career”. It was called “Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind,” and even after retiring from Princeton he continued to give the lecture to general audiences around the United States.

The New York Times described his Princeton lectures as follows: “Dr. Alyea had a genius for bringing science to life in the classroom. With his 'armchair chemistry', he endowed chemical principles with the drama and verve of a sound-and-light show, which now and then burned his suits beyond repair. His hands flew above test tubes and Bunsen burners. Amid explosions and swishing clouds of carbon dioxide he explained the mysteries of chemistry with contagious enthusiasm”.[3]

Alyea was quoted by an interviewer as offering a tripartite classification of teachers. “A good teacher is one who explains a concept; a better teacher is one who asks questions about the concept; and the best teacher is one who demonstrates the concept then solicits the questions from the students".

In 1949 Alyea was a Visiting Professor at the University of Hawaii. In 1958 he lectured at the International Exposition in Brussels, and 1962 and 1967 he did the same at the International Expositions in Seattle and Montreal respectively.

Tested Demonstrations in Chemistry[edit]

Many now-classic classroom chemistry demonstrations were first devised and carried out by Alyea, and have been preserved in his book Tested Demonstrations in Chemistry, which, as one chemistry professor has written, “serve as doctrine for countless chemistry educators who share Alyea's belief in the importance of classroom chemical demonstrations”.

Tested Overhead Projection Series[edit]

Alyea developed a chemistry teaching method that involved the use of overhead projectors and that he called the Tested Overhead Projection Series, or TOPS. He wrote about the method in the textbooks “TOPS in Chemistry” and “Tested Demonstrations in Chemistry”, which have been translated into several languages. The system involved “a small and inexpensive kit” that would enable users to engage in what he called “armchair chemistry” – vivid and memorable demonstrations that illustrated various chemical principles. The overhead projectors made it possible to use the system to instruct hundreds of people at a time. Eventually Alyea broadened the system so that it could be used to teach physics, biochemistry, and general science as well.

The TOPS system not only made for more effective teaching of science at the secondary and college levels throughout the United States, but it made teaching science by demonstration more feasible and cost-efficient in developing nations where low cost was an important consideration. Alyea demonstrated his method in 80 countries around the world and spent extended periods in many of these places helping science instructors learn how to use TOPS.

Public lectures[edit]

As Alyea's fame spread, he began to give science lectures to general audiences around the United States and around the world. Russians who attended his demonstrations at the international science pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair in the 1950s gave him the nickname “Dr. Boom".

According to Time Magazine, he “lectured with an animated, dynamic style that drew enthusiastic audiences of all ages”. “Grimacing with fiendish delight”, Life Magazine reported at the time, “he sets off explosions, shoots water pistols and sprays his audience with carbon dioxide in the course of 32 harrowing experiments dramatizing complicated theory”.[4]

“Atomic Energy: Weapon for Peace”[edit]

In 1945 Alyea developed a two-hour lecture entitled “Atomic Energy: Weapon for Peace,” in which he made use of several chemistry demonstrations to illustrate the science behind the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and, in particular, to explain how atomic reactions differ from ordinary chemical reactions. During the lecture he also offered personal comments, quips, and opinions. He delivered the lecture on about 2,800 occasions to audiences around the world. A shortened version of the lecture was featured on a 1955 NBC TV series, “Princeton '55: An Exploration into Education through Television”. It won an Emmy.

“Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries, and the Prepared Mind”[edit]

Alyea also was well known for a lecture he gave frequently about the nature of scientific discovery.[5] Based on the lecture with which he concluded every semester of his Chemistry 104 course at Princeton and featuring the stories behind such events as the discovery of teflon, the lecture was called “Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind”. It has been described as “a fast-paced set of demonstrations, human-interest stories, poems, and ad libs”. Using the example of Sir Isaac Newton, who came to understand gravity as a result of an apple falling on his head, Aylea summed up the theme of his lecture by quoting Pasteur: “Chance favors only the prepared mind”. Alyea continued to deliver the lecture in various venues after his retirement from Princeton, and was known for giving it at Princeton reunions.

The Absent-Minded Professor[edit]

Walt Disney attended one of Alyea's lectures and was inspired to produce a film comedy about such a character, The Absent-Minded Professor. Alyea traveled to southern California at Disney's invitation so the actor Fred MacMurray could study and imitate his mannerisms. The film includes two of Alyea's best known science demonstrations.

Other professional activities[edit]

Alyea was the chair of the Division of Chemical Education of the American Chemical Society. He also served for a time as chemistry editor of Colliers Encyclopedia and was, in addition, an associate editor of the Journal of Chemical Education. He sat on the Princeton Regional School Board in the 1950s and was an elder at the First Presbyterian Church in Princeton, now known as Nassau Presbyterian Church.

During World War II, he served in Washington, D.C., and in the Pacific as a member of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. He was also a wartime consultant for the state of New Jersey on war gas defense, serving as chairman of the N.J. Civilian Defense Committee.


After his retirement, Alyea continued to deliver lectures at Princeton reunions. His memoir, My Life as a Chemist, was published in 1991.[6]

In 1992, at age 90, Alyea published an article in the Journal of Chemistry Education in which he outlined a new means of producing gases for use in school chemistry labs. The method, which involved gas syringes, has been described as revolutionary. One colleague has written that this innovation “forever impressed upon me the sheer genius of this individual who, at what most would consider to be a quite elderly age, 'fixed' a big problem in laboratory generation of gas samples....For those of us who worry about getting old and losing our usefulness or ability to contribute, Hubert Alyea certainly serves as a true inspiration".

Honors and awards[edit]

Alyea was presented with honorary degrees by various colleges and universities, including Beaver College. He won the New Jersey Science Teachers Award (1954), the New Jersey Education Citation (1957), the Chemical Manufacturers Association Award (1964), an award from the New Jersey Chapter of the American Institute of Chemists (1966), the Award in Chemical Education from the American Chemical Society (1970), the James Flack Norris Award from the Northeast Section of the American Chemical Society (1970), and the Robert H. Carleton Award from the National Science Teachers Association (1991). Dickinson College presented him with the Priestley Award in 1984.[7]

The Princeton section of the American Chemical Society and the Department of Chemistry at Princeton annually award the Hubert Alyea Chemistry Prize to local high-school seniors for outstanding work in chemistry and related disciplines.

The Gates-Alyea-Breyer Award, presented annually at Arcadia University “to an outstanding Chemistry student at the junior level or below who shows unusual potential for future graduate studies, with preference given to a student who is seriously considering teaching as a career,” was established by Dr. Arthur C. Breyer, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Physics, to honor Dr. Edward D. Gates, former President of Arcadia, and Alyea.

Personal life[edit]

Alyea's wife, Evelyn Shields Alyea, predeceased him. He was survived by their son, Frederick N., of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., and a granddaughter, Sara Ballard Alyea.

Alyea died at his home in Hightstown, New Jersey, on October 22, 1996, at the age of 93.[3]


  1. ^ "@princetonCourseware - Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind - Hubert N. Alyea". 1903-10-10. Retrieved 2012-02-21. 
  2. ^ "Princeton Alumni Weekly: Hubert Alyea". 1996-10-19. Retrieved 2012-02-21. 
  3. ^ a b SAXON, WOLFGANG (27 October 1996). "Hubert Newcombe Alyea, 93; Made Chemistry a Lively Art". Obituaries. The New York Times. Retrieved 22 January 2013. 
  4. ^ Thean, Tara. "LIFE With Hubert Alyea: The Science Teacher You Wish You Had". Life Magazine. Retrieved 22 January 2013. 
  5. ^ "Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind". Princeton Courseware. Princeton University. Retrieved 22 January 2013. 
  6. ^ Alyea, Hubert N. "My Life as a Chemist: Hubert N. Alyea, Princeton University, As Recorded for The Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry [Hardcover]". Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry 1991. Retrieved 22 January 2013. 
  7. ^ "Hubert N. Alyea". Oral Histories Collection. Chemical Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 22 January 2013. 

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