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Early September we heard the sad news that Gert van der Zwan had passed away, at the age of 69 (only). We will remember him as an excellent and highly motivated scientist, very broadly oriented and participating in a wide range of projects to which he would always make insightful contributions. This is also evident from his very long list of scientific publications and conference participations.

Diego Millo and Gert van der Zwan, at the Conference of the Electrochemical International Society in Banff (Canada), Sep 2007
Diego Millo and Gert van der Zwan, at the Conference of the Electrochemical International Society in Banff (Canada), Sep 2007

Gert was actually more a physicist than a chemist (by training) and remained that, even though he worked since 1985 at the VU Department of Chemistry and was an active member of the HRSMC. He was a theoretical physicist with a great interest in mathematics. He was less interested in experimenting itself; in his own words, he would rather look for connections between experimental results and existing theories or develop new theories.

In 1976 Gert obtained his degree cum laude in Theoretical Physics from Leiden University, with a second major in Mathematics. Three years later he obtained his PhD with bij P. Mazur at the same university in the area of Brownian motion and light scattering’ (‘On some Aspects of Fluctuating Hydrodynamics’, including five publications). Immediately afterwards he left for the US in order to become a postdoctoral researcher in the physical chemistry group of James T. Hynes at the University of Colorado. There he studied chemical reactions in solution, with a focus on dielectrics. This was a highly successful period, as evidenced by ten high-quality publications resulting from the collaboration with Hynes. Gert’s family archive contains thousands of pictures from his hiking trips in the Rocky Mountains.

In 1985, following a brief period at the University of Oregon in the theoretical physics group of R.M. Mazo,  Gert returned to the Netherlands and joined the Department of Physical Chemistry at the VU, where he worked on macroscopic systems in the group of Gus Somsen. There he soon had to deal with reorganizations, making it difficult to develop his own line of research. He started successful collaborations with the group of Cor MacLean and Jaap Bulthuis, working on NMR of anisotropic systems, such as liquid crystals. Thus in 1987 he became co-author of a paper in J.Phys.Chem. entitled Reaction fields and nuclear quadrupole coupling constants; followed a year later by a publication of his own in PhysicsA entitled On the tensor vs. the vector character of the director field in a nematic liquid crystal. Many more would follow.

In the 1990’s Gert had several successful collaborations with a diverse range of research groups. The following list, although not nearly complete, may serve to illustrate his versatility:

  • The relationship between structure and spectroscopy of antenna complexes of photosynthetic bacteria.
  • Two-dimensional optical spectroscopy of pigment-protein complexes.
  • Electron and energy transfer in porphyrin films (potential application: artificial photosynthetic systems).
  • Tautomerisation and excited state proton transfer in azo dyes, by means of absorption and time-resolved fluorescence spectroscopy.

During these years he would also be teaching courses in Physics and Thermodynamics. He put a lot of effort in teaching; in his own words: education requires effort from both teacher as well as students. Typical for Gert’s character, he would refuse to make any concessions as to the content or level of the courses, even if only 30% of the students would pass at the exam. Gert had a fantastic memory, which is a great asset for a scientist, but it also meant that when university managers would proudly announce organizational changes, Gert would dryly point out how many years ago exactly the same had already been attempted (and failed).

In 1998 Gert joined the newly established research group Applied Laser Spectroscopy, with colleagues Cees Gooijer and Freek Ariese and technicians Joost Buijs and Arjan Wiskerke. To introduce himself to the group, he gave a lecture on his research interests, starting with the words: “My name is Gert and I like equations” New research lines included: Pump-probe spectroscopic characterization of protein folding phenomena, and Resonance Raman spectroscopy of redox proteins. Gert has also been an appreciated supervisor of undergraduate, PhD and postdoctoral students. Even if his bitter sense of humor mixed with his direct and honest statements could have been disorienting in the beginning, most of his students learned to deal with it, and finally appreciate it, finding in Gert a loyal and supportive supervisor. In some cases, Gert’s involvement in the professional life of the student continued well beyond the student’s graduation. In fact, his genuine and restless curiosity together with his honest opinions, made Gert a perfect mentor, a role he naturally embodied with sincere enthusiasm, by providing useful career advice, countless scientific tips, and true friendship.

Gert has always been closely involved in the HRSMC, and at the 1997 symposium presented a lecture on ‘Spectroscopy and excitonic behavior of bacterial antenna systems’. For many years, even after retirement, he would enthusiastically teach at HRSMC courses, such as the PhD course PPP, Photophysics, Photochemistry and Photobiology.

With Gert’s passing away, we have lost a highly respected colleague, whose heart belonged to fundamental science rather than utility. In his views, scientific quality is too complex to be expressed in citation scores or kEuros. He had a great sense of humour and would often add an absurd quote from Monty Python or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to put things in perspective. There is still a drawer full of interesting data waiting for publication. Our thoughts are with his partner Björg and his son Robin. We will dearly miss him.

Cees Gooijer, Freek Ariese, Diego Millo
VU-LaserLaB