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Monson Appointed Distinguished Professor

Peter Monson, who was just appointed by the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees as a Distinguished Professor in the Chemical Engineering Department, has reached his august status by following the guiding principle of Ockham’s Razor. Ockham's Razor is attributed to a 14th-century English logician, theologian, and Franciscan friar, Father William of Ockham, who wrote that "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity." The principle is popularly summarized as "the simplest explanation is usually the correct one."

“What’s the simplest thing I can do here that might describe what’s going on?” explains Monson about the method to his research and scholarship. “My reason is two-fold. We like to do easy calculations, if we can. Life’s much more pleasant that way. But, more importantly, we can then use the computer to get a much more comprehensive picture of what’s going on.”

Distinguished Professor is an honorary title conferred by the Board of Trustees. It is based on nomination by the department and a long record of extraordinary merit as represented by the nominee’s body of scholarship, papers published, and record as a teacher.  

"Dr. Monson is a world renowned researcher in statistical thermodynamics who has made seminal contributions in the areas of interfacial systems, solid-fluid phase behavior, and materials modeling,” says Dean Ted Djaferis. “He is a gifted teacher and an inspirational mentor."

Dr. Monson recalls one moment of his career with particular fondness, when a former undergraduate student commented on the campus website about one of his memorable experiences at UMass Amherst, which happened to be in Monson’s class. As Dr. Monson recalls the incident: “I had asked, ‘Who won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics?’ Nobody knew. So I said, ‘Well you might want to make it your business to learn, because quite often this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics ends up being tomorrow’s engineering problem.’”

This kind of challenge also illustrates Monson’s teaching style, using Ockham’s Razor to cut through complicated engineering material and put it in context. It must work, because Monson has been nominated four times by his students for the UMass Amherst Distinguished Teaching Award.

“I happen to be somebody who loves teaching,” says Monson. “And it’s some of the best time I spend on campus. While there are many aspects to what we do as professors at UMass, we have two essential products: ideas and students.”

The two products interact with each other almost as seamlessly as the molecules in the theory of thermodynamic properties and phase diagrams, which was Monson’s expertise as a chemist when he arrived on campus 28 years ago. He found that his teaching and research feed into one another.

“Molecular theory has become very important for engineers because they need to know the consequences of how molecules interact with each other,” explains Monson. “Non-ideal condense-phase phenomena are what govern phase diagrams, and phase diagrams are what govern separation systems used in the Chemical Process Industries. For instance, distillation, adsorption, and membrane separations are all based on the ideas of phase equilibrium. A lot of my research is relating phase equilibrium to molecular structure.”

During the past 10 years, Monson has continued to develop an internationally recognized research program in statistical thermodynamics with applications in interfacial systems, solid-fluid phase behavior, and materials modeling. This work has important applications for cutting edge technologies in chemical process engineering and materials science.

One of his major contributions is in the fundamentals of fluid confinement in porous materials, about which he developed a new approach to understanding adsorption-desorption hysteresis. Another area is modelling solid-fluid phase equilibrium, a seminal effort that began in the early 1990s.

“We have made a systematic study of the role of molecular structure on solid-fluid equilibrium in single component systems and mixtures,” he notes, “focusing on the effects of molecular size, molecular shape, electrostatic interactions, and chain flexibility.”

In another research area, a collaboration with Professor Scott Auerbach in the Chemistry Department, Monson is using simplified molecular models to understand the fundamental processes involved in the synthesis of ordered nanoporous materials. He also works with other UMass researchers in the Chemistry and Polymer Science departments on the development of proton conduction materials for applications such as fuel cell membranes.

What motivation has led Dr. Monson down these diverse paths toward knowledge, understanding, and accomplishment? Ask William of Ockham. (October 2010)