BU Physics History and Today’s Emeriti

“History is easily forgotten,” said emeritus professor and former physics department chair George Zimmerman, “unless it’s written down.” In that spirit, Zimmerman is writing a history of the BU physics department, which will celebrate its centennial anniversary in 2006.

BU was a very different university in 1906 than it is today. At the time, said Zimmerman, BU was more of a liberal arts college, with small campuses sprinkled throughout Boston. Around 1950, the university moved to its modern Charles River campus, enrollment increased drastically because of the G.I. Bill, and the university acquired the New England Aircraft School, which became the modern College of Engineering. In the late 1950s, BU physics entered a modern era of teaching and research with a rich history that can be chronicled, to some degree, through the personal histories of its staff of emeriti professors.

For emeritus professor John Stachel, who came to BU in 1964, the physics that would shape his career emerged almost at the same time as the fledgling department — in 1905, Albert Einstein wrote his famous paper on general relativity. Stachel went on to study general relativity and became the editor of Einstein’s papers. In celebration of Einstein’s groundbreaking ideas, 2005 has been named the “World Year of Physics.” Stachel has celebrated this year giving talks around the globe about Einstein’s work.

Einstein’s papers were also central to emeritus professor Abner Shimony’s career. Shimony, who holds doctoral degrees in both philosophy and physics, was assigned an exercise by an early professor to figure out what was wrong with the a 1935 paper by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen which argued that quantum mechanics is an incomplete theory. The assignment was his first introduction to the longstanding debate over the inconsistencies of quantum mechanics and special relativity. He didn’t see a flaw, but became convinced that if the conclusion was false, it was due to a weak premise and not due to flawed logic. John S. Bell formalized the debate in 1964 in a theorem which derives an inequality from the assumption of “locality,” the relativity principle that no causal influence can be propagated faster than light. Shimony, who joined the BU physics department in 1968, spent his first year here devising in collaboration with graduate student Michael Horne an experiment to test Bell’s theorem. Years later, his experiment has shown that the data agrees with the predictions of quantum mechanics and disagree with Bell’s inequality, demonstrating that quantum mechanics cannot be interpreted as a local theory.

For Bernard (Bernie) Chasan, who was formally trained as a nuclear physicist, “serendipity” led him into biophysics. Together, Schrödinger’s book and his wife’s work as a nurse helped him start to examine the physical questions in biology. Then, in the 1970s, Gene Stanley’s group joined the BU physics department and brought with them biophysicist Ken Rothschild, who studied the proteins of the eye. Inspired and motivated, Chasan gradually moved into biophysics and also became an expert Atomic Force Microscope scientist. Chasan now employs that expertise in collaborative work on various biological investigations, including Professor Rama Bansil’s study of the stomach protein mucin, and Massachusetts General Hospital urologist Horacio Cantiello’s study of ion channels formed by the protein actin. Most recently Chasan designed a summer biophysics course for minority undergraduates.

Charles (Chuck) Willis joined the BU physics department in 1956 and began his research in statistical mechanics. Then, in the 1970s, Willis studied laser physics and wrote several influential articles on laser theory. After Professor Michael El-Batanouny joined the department in 1981, he and Willis worked together on several articles about the existence and properties of solitons, standing waves similar to tsunamis in the ocean, on the surface of gold.

Emeritus Professor Bill Hellman first came to BU as a post-doc in 1964, he had been trained in or Bill Hellman first came to BU as a post-doc in 1964, he had been trained in elementary particle physics. Most of Hellman’s professional work, however, has centered on the physics of sensory perception. Hellman became involved with the Hearing Research Center in the BU Biomedical Engineering Department. Today he is collaborating with biomedical engineering professor H. Steven Colburn on papers about quantifying intuitive sensations such as loudness.

Wolf Franzen, the oldest of the physics emeriti faculty, continues his work in El-Batanouny’s lab. He has collaborated with El-Batanouny for 15 years, designing instruments with his graduate students for experimental research exploring meta-stable Helium atoms, atoms excited through bombardment with beams of electrons.

When he’s not penning history tomes, George Zimmerman focuses his experimental research on solving energy distribution problems using superconductors. Recently, he shipped a set of leads to the Institute for Plasma Research in India. The leads, which deliver power to equipment the same way an electric plug delivers power to a TV set, conduct very large amounts of electricity. Their capacity makes them useful for delivering power to magnets used to confine plasma in fusion reactors.

The Department has evolved and grown in many dimensions in the past half-century. What started as a small department, chaired by Robert Cohen, expanded slowly with the addition of the current emeriti by the end of the 1960s. In the 1970s, Zimmerman became chair, and scientists such as Stanley and El-Batanouny joined the staff, increasing the diversity of the Department. During the 1980s, former department chair Larry Sulak joined the Department and brought high-energy physics into the mix. At the same time, Chasan and others became interested in biophysics. Just as the work of the emeriti faculty illustrate the wide variety of places the BU Physics Department has been, their tireless curiosity foretells the exciting research that is likely to come.

Edited from article written by Elizabeth Dougherty, MSc in Science Journalism, COM ‘06