Thanks to physicist Don Braben, the oil giant funds Nobeists and little-known scientists when no one will

LONDON—Harvard chemist Dudley Herschbach was reading a copy of Physics Today one day in 1981 when he came across an article on quantum chromodynamics. It explained how physicists use dimensional contraction to calculate the energy levels of subatomic particles. Intrigued, the soon-to-be Nobel laureate thought this might make a good exercise for his chemistry students to apply to atomic electron levels. To his astonishment, he found that with a handheld calculator he was getting more accuracy than legions of theoretical chemists could manage with their supercomputers.

Having found an “easy” approach to a tough problem, Herschbach couldn’t wait to plunge into subatomic energy levels. But here came a snag to pursue the investigation further, he needed big bucks and a substantial amount of time to devote to the problem, and the classic funding...

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