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Kira Mirsky (1935-2006)

[Mirsky]In 1958, after graduating from the Potyomkin Inst. in Moscow, Kira Mirsky joined the Structural Analysis Lab of the then Soviet (now Russian) Academy of Sciences and initiated her career as a solid-state physicist/crystallographer.

She became known to scientists working in the field of the organic solid state through her work with Alexander Kitaigorodsky. Together, they developed a simple, fast, and reliable method for the calculation of lattice energies in organic crystals in a scheme called the atom-atom potential method. She authored or co-authored many of the most significant papers of that era that later appeared in English in Soviet Physics Crystallography. Kira’s pioneering efforts and careful consideration of the implied issues, both in the physical interpretation and in the parameterization, made possible the success of the method. It is still widely used today in molecular dynamics and Monte Carlo simulations, molecular recognition studies, drug design, and other modeling methods.

Kira was among the many talented scientists who emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel in the early 1970s. She was quiet and reserved, but with a sparkle and smile that revealed a warm and friendly countenance. She joined the Structural Chemistry Department at the Weizmann Inst. of Science in Rehovot, then headed by Mendel Cohen with whom she developed a sorely needed new force field for chlorine which is still a standard in the field.

In the late 1970s, she collaborated with Joel Bernstein on a study of trans-stilbene. The molecule crystallizes in space group P21/c with two crystallographically independent half molecules in the asymmetric unit, and its structure was first reported by J.M Robertson in the 1930s. In an elegant mixed crystal experiment Kitaigorodsky had shown that the two half molecules were energetically inequivalent. Kira and Joel wanted to see if lattice energy calculations could account for this energetic inequivalence. She dove into the problem in her usual quiet and very competent way, said nothing for a couple of months, and then presented Joel with a superb computational study that became their joint publication in Acta Crystallographica.

Ken Trueblood had met Kira in 1965 when he was on sabbatical leave in Moscow. They formed the kind of friendship that transcends miles, years, and national boundaries, and when she arrived in Los Angeles in 1979, she joined his group and used atom-atom potentials to help characterize disordered structures, and especially, to describe and quantify models for thermal motion studies.

Kira’s mother had taught English in Russia, and Kira spoke excellent English. Her knowledge of literature (think “Winnie the Pooh”) was wide. So she brought to her speech and manner the colloquialisms and wit that go with speaking several languages, and the special familiarity with life in English-speaking countries that knowledge of literature brings. She was always lively and upbeat and full of humor and ready with a wink or a smile. She possessed great enthusiasm for her work, for nature, and for people.

Kira moved to Ashland, Oregon and Southern Oregon State College, as it was then known, in 1989 where she joined the physics faculty and taught undergraduate physics courses for six years. Sidney Abrahams appreciated finding a crystallographer of her caliber on campus when he arrived two years later. Kira contributed enthusiastically to a study supported by the NSF on the systematic prediction of new ferroelectrics by analysis of their reported crystal structures. Her insight into the geometry of organic groups and molecules was deep and strongly reminiscent of Kitaigorodsky’s, proving most valuable in the study of the physical properties of such materials.

In 1994, Kira moved to Spokane, Washington where she taught physics at Whitworth College. She and her husband, Mike, moved to Seattle in 1999 for a very active “retirement”. Kira was a talented linguist and used her gift as a translator, editor, and medical interpreter. She made life better and happier for many people, and she will be remembered for her intelligence, wisdom, love, and laughter. Her knowledge was more than matched by her quiet, dignified demeanor and wonderful traits, middot as is said in Hebrew.

Joel Bernstein, Angelo Gavezzotti, Emily Maverick, S. C. Abrahams, Mike Mirsky, Reuben Rudman, and Ron Stenkamp
18 August 2008