Pop, Fizz, Memento

A close look at three empty champagne bottles reveals no mere cocktail-party discards.

By Mary Ellen Bowden | July 10, 2012

Set of commemorative champagne bottles, 1970s.

Science History Institute/Gregory Tobias

Signatures are crowded onto the label of each, including those of William Moberg, Robert Burns Woodward, and George Büchi.

Moberg spent his career at DuPont and BASF synthesizing new compounds, but his champagne bottles date back to his graduate-school and postdoc days at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The first bottle commemorates the passing of his exams before his doctoral research; the second, the awarding of his doctorate in 1974 under the direction of Woodward; and the third, the end of his postdoctoral research with MIT’s Büchi in 1977. To the wider chemical community perhaps the most valued signatures are those of Woodward and Büchi, both masters of structural analysis and synthesis of complex natural molecules

Woodward had his own champagne parties celebrating his 1965 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Having drunk the champagne especially put aside for the event by the Harvard chemistry department, the revelers decided that each should receive a signed bottle as a memento. But there were more drinkers than bottles. Woodward solved this thorny problem by throwing more parties and gathering the empty bottles for distribution. When a Swedish film crew arrived after the last of the celebrations, they were disappointed to have missed such lively photo ops. Woodward obliged by authorizing even more champagne partying.

Moberg carried on the champagne tradition. His three bottles bear witness to chemistry’s social nature, in which researchers work in close proximity, share the lows and highs of research, and celebrate.