Recollection of Terrell Hill



By Prof. Michael Sela
Sometime in 1955 or 1956, American scientist Terrell Leslie Hill (1917-2014) visited the Weizmann Institute. He was the guest of Aharon Katzir and Shneior Lifson, and I was honored to make his acquaintance. During my first visit to the US in 1956, to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Laura and Terrell Hill were our first friends who helped us settle in and find our way. In 1964, Terrell Hill returned to the Weizmann Institute for a year as a visiting scientist in the Chemical Physics Department headed by Shneior Lifson. When I recently spoke with Arieh Warshel, last year’s Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, he told me how important the books of Terrell Hill were to his career development. Warshel was then too young to meet Hill while he was at the Weizmann Institute, but he got the chance to meet and become friends with Hill during his time at NIH.

Hill, a theoretical physicist and physical chemist, was active mainly in statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, chemical physics, condensed matter physics, theoretical molecular biology and biochemistry. He worked on the Manhattan Project at Berkeley, and has worked in the Federal Government at the US Naval Medical Research Institute and at the NIH.

In the 47 years since being a graduate student at Berkeley in 1940, until his 70th birthday, Hill published about 260 research articles, eight scientific textbooks or monographs, and two poetry books. His well-known textbook An Introduction to Statistical Thermodynamics has been translated into many languages. His wonderful book Statistical Mechanics: Principles and Selected Applications was first published in 1956. Then in 1964, Hill published his famous book Thermodynamics of Small Systems – a founding book in the field of nanothermodynamics. Hill’s overall contribution in science, it seems, was to extend the work of American physicist and chemist J.W. Gibbs on thermodynamics to ensembles of small systems, particularly in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology. One of his latest works was published in 1998 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS): Terrell L. Hill and Ralph V. Chamberlin. Extension of the thermodynamics of small systems to open metastable states: An Example. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA Vol 95 (1998). By using a simplified model of small open liquid-like clusters with surface effects, in the gas phase, it was shown how the statistical thermodynamics of small systems can be extended to include metastable supersaturated gaseous states not too far from the gas-liquid equilibrium transition point. To accomplish this, one has to distinguish between mathematical divergence and physical convergence of the open-system partition function.

As his daughter Julie wrote to me: “The Weizmann Institute was very important in my father’s life and he was a real Zionist as well.” I will add that he will be very well-remembered, both as a scientist and as a human being.