In memoriam: Oktay Sinanoğlu, renowned theoretical chemist

Oktay Sinanoğlu, professor emeritus of chemistry and molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and a member of the Yale faculty for 37 years, died on April 19 at age 80.

An internationally renowned researcher who was known as “The Turkish Einstein,” Sinanoğlu lived in the Emerald Lakes neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale, Florida and in Istanbul, Turkey with his wife, Dilek Sinanoğlu, and their twins.

“Sinanoğlu’s greatest scientific contributions were in the 1960s, when he developed a theory of the electronic structure of molecules,” said Yale Sterling Professor of Chemistry John Tully. “Whereas the behavior of electrons is governed by the Schroedinger Equation, this equation is essentially impossible to solve except for systems with very few electrons. The difficulty is that, in contrast to what is taught in introductory chemistry classes, electrons do not move independently in their own orbitals. Rather, they interact with each other such that their motions are correlated. Methods to address this ‘election correlation’ problem are still being developed today. Sinanoğlu’s early work represents an important step toward the goal of developing accurate approximations to the electronic Schroedinger Equation.”

Sinanoğlu was born in Bari, Italy, on Feb. 25, 1935 to Nüzhet Haşim and Rüveyde (Karaçabey) Sinanoğlu. His father was a consular official in the Bari Consulate of Turkey and a writer. Nüzhet Sinanoğlu was the author of “Petrarca,” published in 1931, which states in its preface: “The best way [for Turkey] is to adopt the Western culture.” Sinanoğlu would be a proponent of Westernization as well after his retirement from Yale University in 1997.

The Sinanoğlu family returned to Turkey from Italy before the start of World War II, in July 1938. Sinanoğlu graduated from the TED Ankara Koleji in 1951. He came to the United States in 1953 to study at the University of California-Berkeley and graduated with a B.S. with highest honors in 1956. The following year Sinanoğlu completed an M.S. degree (1957) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was awarded the Sloan Research Fellowship. He completed a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of California-Berkeley, in 1959.

Sinanoğlu joined the Yale faculty in 1960 and was appointed professor of chemistry in 1963, becoming, at the age of 28, the youngest full professor in Yale’s 20th-century history. He is also believed to be the third-youngest full professor in Yale’s 300-plus year history

While at the university, Sinanoğlu proposed the Many Electron Theory of Atoms and Molecules (1961); Solvophobic Theory (1964); Network Theory (1974); Microthermodynamics (1981); and Valency Interaction Formula Theory (1983).

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Sinanoğlu received attention for a research system, dubbed "Sinanoğlu Made Simple," which he derived from his own mathematical theories. The method, hailed as revolutionary, enables chemists to predict the ways in which chemicals combine in the laboratory and to solve other complex problems in chemistry using simple pictures and periodic tables. When it was announced in 1988, Sinanoğlu said it was easy enough for a 12-year-old to understand, adding, “The pictorial rules turn chemistry into a fun game.”

He was a frequent consultant to several Turkish universities and to the Turkish Scientific and Technical Research Council throughout his tenure at Yale as well as to the Japanese government’s Society for the Promotion of Science.

A book in which he was interviewed about his life and works, under the name “The Turkish Einstein, Oktay Sinanoğlu” was edited by Turkish writer Emine Çaykara and published in 2001 in Turkey, where it quickly became a best-seller. Sinanoğlu is the author or co-author of dozens of articles and several books in the sciences and, more recently, of several books on contemporary affairs in Turkey.

In addition to writing, in his free time, Sinanoğlu enjoyed piloting his own plane, crewing his own boat, and tinkering in his lab at Science Park in New Haven. He was known as a gifted storyteller, poet, and dancer.

Sinanoğlu is survived by his first wife, Paula Armbruster ’64 M.A. of New Haven, Connecticut; his children: son Karaçabey Levni Sinanoğlu ’96 M.F.A. of New Haven; daughter Elif Sinanoğlu Armbruster (William Cochrane) of Arlington, Massachusetts; son Murat Armbruster (Bellis Clausen) of Oakland, California; and twins Oya and Alper Sinanoğlu; and his grandchildren, Ayuka Wilhelm Sinanoğlu and Mary Elizabeth Cochrane.