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Bright Light in Photosynthesis

10 January 1997 8:00 pm
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Melvin Calvin, who as a biologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory unraveled the secrets of how plants use light for energy, died on 8 January in Berkeley, California. He was 85.

As Calvin told the story, it was on the day the Japanese army surrendered to end World War II that renowned physicist Ernest Lawrence told him, "Now is the time to do something useful with radioactive carbon." Calvin assembled a crack Berkeley team to tackle photosynthesis. His group used carbon-14, discovered at the Berkeley lab in 1940, to trace carbon's route in the plant: from absorption as carbon dioxide to conversion into carbohydrates and other compounds. Calvin's team found that sunlight acts on chlorophyll rather than carbon dioxide.

Calvin earned a bachelor's degree from the Michigan College of Mining and Technology in 1931 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1935. He is survived by two daughters, a son, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

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