Research, teaching and outreach in Physics at UW–Madison
Longtime physics staff member Ed Slotten has passed away
Ed Slotten, a longtime physics department staff member who retired in 2005, passed away June 1. He was 75.
Ed joined the department shortly after graduating from Madison Area Technical College and worked here for 34 years before retiring. He was both an accountant and a research program manager.
“Ed was a friend, colleague, and superbly supported the department through the good and bad times,” says emeritus professor Don Reeder. “I was here for almost all his 34 years and witnessed his outstanding service.”
Says professor Bob Joynt: “Ed took care of me for anything financial from when I arrived in 1986 until his retirement almost 20 years later. I never had to worry about anything — he always had it covered. He was the person I also went to talk to whenever I just felt like talking — sometimes sports, sometimes university stuff — didn’t matter. He was always a source of good cheer, wisdom, and fun. RIP, Ed.”
Professor Thad Walker adds: “I was interviewing in early 1990. I knew how important efficient purchasing was going to be to getting my experiments going quickly. I kept hounding Jim Lawler for details. Jim got tired of it, took me to Ed’s office, and asked Ed to have my reimbursement check ready later that morning. Ed’s delivery of said check shut me up. Ed was an excellent, efficient, and cheerful administrator.”
Ed was also a husband and father (he is survived by his wife, Debra, his daughter, Lisa, and his son, Scott), a passionate Badger and Madison-area high school sports fan, and a U.S. Army veteran.
Ed stopped by the department somewhat regularly even after his retirement, and his visits were always welcome. He will be greatly missed.
Professor Jim Lawler, the Arthur and Aurelia Schawlow Professor Emerit of Physics at UW–Madison, passed away January 29, 2023. He was 71.
Lawler was an atomic, molecular & optical physicist with a focus developing and applying laser spectroscopic techniques for determining accurate absolute atomic transition probabilities. He received his MS (’74) and PhD (’78) from this department, studying with now-professor emerit Wilmer Anderson. In the two years after earning his doctorate, he was a research associate at Stanford University, and returned to UW–Madison as an assistant professor in 1980. He remained on the faculty until his retirement in May 2022.
Lawler served as department chair from 1994-1997. He also accumulated numerous awards and honors over his distinguished career. He was a fellow of the American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America, the U.K. Institute of Physics, and in 2020 he was elected a Legacy Fellow of the inaugural class of American Astronomical Society Fellows. He won the 1992 W. P. Allis Prize of the American Physical Society and the 1995 Penning Award from the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics for research in plasma physics, the two highest National and International Awards in the field of Low Temperature Plasma Physics. In 2017, he won Laboratory Astrophysics Prize of the American Astronomical Society for research in spectroscopy.
At the time of Lawler’s retirement, longtime collaborator Blair Savage, UW–Madison professor emeritus of astronomy, said of Lawler’s contributions to the field:
“Jim’s work in laboratory astrophysics provided extremely important atomic ultraviolet transition probabilities in support of the Hubble Space Telescope programs to determine elemental abundances of gaseous matter in the interstellar medium from three different ultraviolet spectrographs over the 32-year history of the space observatory. They included the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.”
During his tenure, Lawler supervised 26 PhD students and 10 terminal MS students. Those students and postdocs have gone on to prestigious National Research Council Fellowships, group lead positions at major companies, and tenured professorships, amongst many others.
Peter Weix remembered for his technical, mentoring, and outreach efforts in physics
The Department of Physics mourns the loss of Peter Weix, who passed away January 13, 2023.
Peter began his career as an electronics technician in the U.S. Navy in 1984, where he served until 1990. Following his Navy service, he worked as an electronics technician for several companies in California before joining the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford. At SLAC he was a Senior Technician with involvement on both the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource and what is now the Linac Coherent Light Source. He also served as a Safety Officer with special emphasis on earthquake safety. Peter and his wife, Sheri, relocated to Wisconsin in 2001 so that Peter could join the Plasma Physics Group at UW–Madison where he worked for more than 20 years and advanced to Senior Instrumentation Specialist.
Peter’s work responsibilities at UW spanned a diverse range of technical operations for both the Madison Symmetric Torus (MST) and the Big Red Plasma Ball (BRB), two intermediate-scale experimental facilities for plasma physics research. He oversaw the mechanical and electrical aspects of the MST facility and its high-voltage pulsed-power systems, making sure the facility functioned as required, both technically and safely. He also oversaw all aspects of the high vacuum systems for both MST and BRB. There are many researchers, both in the local group and visiting collaborators, who relied on Peter’s efforts to make sure research projects stayed on track. Additionally, Peter directed key parts of large construction projects, such as the new programmable power supplies that replace MST’s passive capacitor-inductor circuits.
Peter’s involvement with plasma physics research included supervision of around 4-6 undergraduate students at any given time; he mentored an estimated more than 50 students during his time here. The students came from many areas of study, not just science and engineering, and rarely joined the group with the specific skills required to support research activities. Peter welcomed them into the department and provided them all with on-the-job training, teaching them skills and tricks of the trade to allow them to grow and become valuable members of the team.
In addition to his dedicated service to the plasma group, Peter recognized the importance and value of physics outreach. He became a vital member of The Wonders of Physics program for over twenty years. His involvement started when one of the participants was suddenly unavailable at the start of one of the public shows. Peter saved the day by learning on the fly how to operate the complicated audiovisual system. His performance under pressure was impressive, and he was then asked to be the coordinator and main announcer for the approximately 200 shows that followed. Through the years, he provided ideas, elaborate props, personnel, wisdom, and a calming influence on the entire cast. He spent countless hours volunteering his time to the program.
In recognition of his many contributions to the department and university, Peter was awarded the 2022-23 George Ott award for staff excellence, the only department-level staff award given. He will be recognized at the annual Awards and Scholarship banquet in May.
Profs. John Sarff and Clint Sprott contributed to this piece
Experimental condensed matter physics professor Marshall Onellion has passed away
UW–Madison physics professor Marshall Onellion passed away November 20, 2022. He was 72.
After completing his BS in mathematics and physics at West Virginia University in 1972, Onellion served in the U.S. Air Force until he was honorably discharged with the rank of Captain in 1979. He then began graduate studies in physics at Rice University, earning his PhD in 1984 before completing postdoctoral research at the University of Texas, Austin and Harvard University. Onellion joined the UW–Madison physics faculty as an assistant professor in 1987.
A condensed matter experimentalist, Onellion established a vigorous research program that primarily utilized the Aladdin ring at the UW-Madison Synchrotron Radiation Center (SRC) located in Stoughton, WI, for innovative studies of correlated electron materials of various types, including high-temperature superconductors, thin films, and magnetic multi-layers. His workhorse experimental tool was angle-resolved photoemission that was ideally suited to the stable and bright UV SRC synchrotron source.
Over the course of the next 15 years, his work was prolific. He published over 180 peer-reviewed articles, was a thesis advisor to many graduate and undergraduate students, and trained several postdoctoral researchers.
Onellion garnered numerous awards over his career, including being named a Hertz Fellow in graduate school and earning a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator award in 1987. In 1996, he was named a UW–Madison Vilas Research Associate.
For many years Marshall actively volunteered to work with science students in area high schools, primarily Stoughton High School. In recognition of this outstanding service, in 2000 Marshall received a State of Wisconsin Certificate of Commendation for Public Service from Governor Tommy Thompson.
Special thanks to Prof. Thad Walker and Robert Sundling for contributing to this piece
Plasma astrophysicist and emeritus professor Don Cox has passed away
Professor Emeritus Donald P. Cox passed away October 26, 2022. He was 79. A plasma astrophysicist, Cox contributed many years to research in his scientific field, to students with whom he worked, and to the department’s teaching mission.
Cox came to the UW–Madison physics department in 1969 with the promise of a faculty position a year before receiving his PhD from the University of California, San Diego. Except for an extended leave of absence at Rice University while his wife completed her degree in Houston, Cox spent his entire professional career here.
He arrived in the era of a cold and quiet interstellar medium and a newly discovered and unexplained soft X-ray background. For the next four years, he and his students did much of the original work on X-ray plasma emissions from supernova remnants, combining a broad physical insight into global processes with laborious and careful compilations of the necessary atomic physics. At this time, astronomers were still searching for the source of the X-ray background, having apparently eliminated all viable production mechanisms.
Cox looked beyond his remnants and realized that the uniform cold medium that he had been producing them in was incompatible with their collective effects on it. He proceeded to turn astronomy’s conventional picture on its head, proposing the hot, violent, and dynamic picture of the interstellar medium that is taught today as a matter of fact. His subsequent work was marked by a lack of respect for convention and a desire to apply basic physics principles to the complexities of interstellar dynamics. His insight that star formation must have a negative feedback effect on future star formation is today a central tenet of research on galactic evolution.
In following his own path, Cox developed an international reputation as the most original thinker in his field. His legacy of fundamentally new ideas is supplemented by two generations of his students who continue his work.
The other side of Cox’s career at Wisconsin was his dedication to teaching, attested to by his many years as leader of the department’s undergraduate program, his election as a fellow of the Teaching Academy, and numerous unsolicited testimonials from students. His interest in teaching was clearly fueled by a desire to share his own joy and fascination with the ideas of physics. He spent hours with pencil and paper, solving a problem that had nothing to do with his research, just to show that some seemingly complex behavior can be derived from basic principles. He did this out of personal curiosity, but his willingness to share his enjoyment of the result was well known.
Modified from Department Archives, with special thanks to Prof. Dan McCammon for contributing to this piece
Theoretical physicist Bernice Durand was a leader of gender equity on campus and in her field
Bernice Durand, Professor Emerita and one of the first two female professors in the UW–Madison Department of Physics, passed away February 7.
Durand was a theoretical physicist who specialized in particle theory and mathematical physics. Her research was on symmetry relations in algebra and physics, plus the phenomenology of high-energy interactions at large particle accelerators. She earned her BS and PhD degrees in physics from Iowa State University. In 1970, she started at UW–Madison as a research associate and lecturer and joined the faculty in 1977, where she directed nine PhD and three MS students.
As the first Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Climate, Professor Durand provided leadership to ensure that faculty, staff, and student diversity issues including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and classroom and general campus workplace climate issues be addressed, and that search committees for non-classified staff be trained in broadening the pool of applicants and eliminating implicit bias. Durand co-directed a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to the UW System designed to create more equity, flexibility and career options for faculty and academic staff. She was also a member of the leadership team of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute sponsored by the National Science Foundation to increase the participation and status of women in science.
A recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Teaching, Professor Durand taught courses at all levels, from modern physics for non-scientists (“Physics for Poets”) to a specialized course she developed for advanced graduate students in the use of topology and algebra in quantum field theory. In the mid-1990s, she used technological and pedagogical techniques in her teaching, such as broadcasting her modern physics for non-scientists course on public television with web-based coursework and pioneering one of two early versions of MOOCs (massive open online courses) on campus.
The department announced the annual Bernice Durand Undergraduate Research Scholarship in 2003, which gives preference to students from underrepresented groups in Physics and Astronomy who show research potential, motivation, and interest in the discipline. In 2018, the department’s Board of Visitors sought to create an endowed faculty fund in honor of Durand. Thanks to generous support from several Board of Visitors members and Bernice’s husband, Professor Emeritus Randy Durand, the Bernice Durand Faculty Fellowship was established in 2021. The Department plans to use the Durand Faculty Fellowship to support a professor in the department who will expand efforts to create a more diversified faculty.
Bernice is survived by her husband, Loyal Durand, also a UW–Madison Professor Emeritus of Physics; by stepsons Travis, Tim, and Chris Durand, whom she helped to raise from early ages; and by five nieces and nephews.
Willy Haeberli remembered as physicist, teacher, and museum supporter
University of Wisconsin–Madison Professor Emeritus Willy Haeberli passed away October 4, 2021. He was 96.
Born in Zurich, Switzerland on June 17, 1925, Haeberli received his PhD from the University of Basel (Switzerland) in 1952. He joined the faculty of UW–Madison in 1956, retiring in 2005.
Haeberli was a world-class experimental nuclear physicist. His research focused on studying spin effects in nuclear processes and in fundamental interactions. He and his collaborators developed spin-polarized gas targets of atomic hydrogen and deuterium. These “Haeberli cells” were used in many experiments worldwide including the Indiana University Cyclotron Facility, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and DESY Laboratory in Germany, and they were crucial for the success of those experiments.
Haeberli was the Raymond G. Herb Professor of Physics and a Hilldale Professor. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, and he won the American Physical Society’s Bonner Prize in nuclear physics in 1979.
In addition to his scientific achievements, Haeberli was an accomplished teacher. He taught physics courses at UW–Madison for 49 years and developed the popular course Physics 109: Physics in the Arts, with Prof. Ugo Camerini. Physics in the Arts has been offered successfully and continuously since 1969, and has been emulated by tens of universities across the country. In the last five years before retiring, he co-taught the course with Prof. Pupa Gilbert. After he retired, Gilbert convinced him to co-write a textbook for Physics in the Arts, published by Academic Press-Elsevier in 2008, and 2011, translated into Chinese and published by Tsinghua University Press in 2011.
“Willy is a giant in my life. He was career changing, life changing, teaching changing, everything. Just the most amazing person I could have ever met,” Gilbert says. “He was, until the last day, my best friend ever, and the closest thing to a father figure I have ever had.”
Gilbert says that Haeberli’s interest in Physics in the Arts may have stemmed from his musician days — he played the flute in a quartet in college — and his wife’s passion for the figurative arts. She continues:
He always loved a lot more the physics of sound compared to the physics of light and color. He and I had feisty disagreements about the physics of light, and I enjoyed every one of them. Very often before classes I would come up with questions, and he could always, always answer them and pacify me. The last one was last spring, when I was teaching sound, and started wondering: Okay, we know that the speed of sound changes dramatically with temperature, but does the frequency change too? In other words, does a tuning fork sound different indoors or outdoors in Madison’s winters? I looked into this seemingly trivial question and could not find any answer I could trust to be right. Until I asked Willy, who (of course!) knew the answer right away, and charmingly explained that the wavelength and the speed of sound vary with temperature for a guitar string or a tuning fork, but the frequency does not. I will miss these elegant answers tremendously!
Haeberli recently made a significant donation to the Ingersoll Physics Museum, which allows for new exhibits to be developed, allows for current exhibits to be improved, and helps fund the docents program which provides tours for visiting school groups. He and his late wife, Dr. Gabriele Haberland, also supported the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, UW–Madison’s Chazen Museum, and Tandem Press with generous gifts.