New Pines Center at the College of Chemistry resonates with promise

Advancing Berkeley’s prominent position in the vital methodology of nuclear magnetic resonance

Alex Pines, Glenn T. Seaborg Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, has had a remarkable career as a groundbreaking researcher and beloved teacher. Pines is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society; holds honorary degrees from the Universities of Rome, Paris, Marseilles, Amritsar, and the Weizmann Institute of Science; and his many awards include the Wolf Prize in Chemistry. In his honor, the Pines Magnetic Resonance Center (PMRC) was launched on November 28, 2023, at a gathering for the Alexander Pines Endowed Lecture in Physical Chemistry, this year presented by Lyndon Emsley, professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. The new center advances Berkeley’s prominent position in the vital methodology of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

Photo of Alex in a black T-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, standing in front a new sign for the center.

Alex Pines at the Pines Magnetic Resonance Center

“My vision for the PMRC was a center comprising three components,” says Pines. “First an analytical facility with technical staff and state of the art instrumentation for NMR characterization of molecular identity, structure, dynamics, and function. Second, a core program involving faculty and groups working in basic NMR research and development which can further enhance the capabilities of the analytical facility. And third, an educational outreach effort for the college of chemistry, the university, and beyond.”

Pines has a magnetic personality and a resonant voice — you might say that he is a bit like NMR, if you are inclined to take a poetic leap. NMR is a technique that uses magnetic fields and electromagnetic frequencies to study molecular structures. The nuclear in NMR refers to the nuclei of certain atoms, which have a property called spin, meaning they behave like tiny magnets and can thus be studied in the context of other, stronger magnetic fields. The frequencies (the resonance part) that the molecules emit as they are manipulated are as distinctive as a fingerprint. NMR is a non-invasive technology that has an extraordinary range of applications — in physics, chemistry, materials science, and biomedicine, with direct implications for its perhaps more widely known related technology, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

“Magnetic resonance has transformed the chemical sciences by providing new insights into electronic, dynamical, structural, and transport properties of chemicals, materials, and systems,” says Dean of Chemistry Doug Clark. “The College of Chemistry’s first combined liquids, solids, and imaging NMR instrument, inaugurated in 2022, is now booked 24/7 for researchers throughout the campus. The Pines Magnetic Resonance Center will expand upon that first instrument with modern instruments for advanced questions in the chemical sciences and new instruments that will increase the sensitivity of NMR by many orders of magnitude, thereby expanding the applications of NMR in fields ranging from quantum information processing to biomolecular engineering and nanoscience.”

"The Pines Magnetic Resonance Center… will increase the sensitivity of NMR by many orders of magnitude, thereby expanding the applications of NMR in fields ranging from quantum information processing to biomolecular engineering and nanoscience.” — Dean Doug Clark

NMR was discovered in 1945 — coincidentally the year of Pines’ birth — by Felix Bloch and Edward Purcell, who won the 1952 Nobel Prize for their work. Pines has had a direct hand in expanding the scope of NMR techniques and applications, and has developed approaches that were once considered impossible. NMR instruments now have the capacity to study solids, an advancement termed cross polarization that Pines developed during his graduate study at MIT before he came to Berkeley in 1972.

While he was at MIT, Pines co-wrote a landmark paper describing time reversal in a seemingly irreversible process. The paper, entitled “Violation of the Spin Temperature Hypothesis,” demonstrated the Lochschmidt demon or paradox, which contradicts the second law of thermodynamics. The Lochsmidt demon presents a challenge that scientists have wrestled with since the late 19th century, following on the work of Ludwig Botlzmann, creator of statistical mechanics.

Photo of Alex with eight members of his family stand in a white hallways, with a sign for Hildebrand Hall hanging above.

Alex Pines, his wife Ditsa, and friends and family gathered for the launch of the PMRC.

For his subsequent research at Berkeley, Pines insists that credit goes to the self-dubbed “Pinenuts,” the students and postdocs who have come through his lab over 50 years, many of whom continue to flourish as leaders in academia, industry, and government. Pines and the Pinenuts are known for multiple quantum spectroscopy, wherein groups of nuclear spins flip while absorbing groups of radiofrequency quanta. These concepts and methods are used in an array of areas, including quantum information processing, a growing area of research that brings together quantum mechanics and information theory. Pines and his dynamic team have repeatedly reframed assumptions about the essential behavior of the molecules that govern our world. Their ongoing contributions to solid state NMR include expanding the reach of the technology to analyze molecules that have nuclei that were previously considered not suitable for NMR analysis. Using simultaneous rotation of a given sample around two axes in space, the Pines group took a novel approach that enables imaging by emulating the symmetry of a geometric solid described by Plato, the icosahedron. Pines and his group also invented zero-field NMR — that is NMR without a magnet, which initially sounded very far-fetched, but is now an exciting methodology being deployed in areas from analytical chemistry and to fundamental atomic physics. While their approaches in zero-field and solid state NMR were initially met by the magnetic resonance community with skepticism, Pines and the Pinenuts have repeatedly proved successful at turning seemingly impossible ideas into viable experiments.

While he began at Berkeley teaching graduate students, Pines enthusiastically shared his love for chemistry with undergraduates. The large lecture halls of foundational chemistry courses he taught were abuzz with students in Chemistry 1A responding to his “ChemQuizzes” — opportunities to solve problems together in class and then share their insights with the group as a whole. It’s no surprise that Pines’ many accolades include Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award — his charisma, magnetic personality, openness, and enthusiasm for his subject are infectious.

Pines and his dynamic team, the Pinenuts, have repeatedly reframed assumptions about the essential behavior of the molecules that govern our world.

Thanks to this generous investment, the Pines Magnetic Resonance Center will no doubt generate new insights and applications for NMR. The College of Chemistry will continue to hum and resonate with game-changing insights and launch remarkable careers. Pines and the Pinenuts, through the art and practice of chemistry, have made the impossible possible and laid the groundwork for advancements to come. Pines attributes much of his success with the Pinenuts to collaborations with extraordinary colleagues at Berkeley, among them David Wemmer in chemical biology, Jeffrey Reimer in chemical engineering, John Clarke in condensed matter physics, Dmitry Budker in atomic and molecular optics, and Ashok Ajoy, who recently joined the chemistry faculty pursuing magnetic resonance research. Other collaborations include colleagues from a diverse range of disciplines such as mathematics, engineering, biology, and medicine.

As Pines would say, acknowledging the vital support of the donor and the wider community and the generative, cross-disciplinary atmosphere that scientists here share: “The cross-disciplinary culture, the collaborative intellectual atmosphere, that’s the beauty of Berkeley.”

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