Chance interactions, ambition highlight
senior physicist’s career
“I’m enjoying myself. I’m full of ideas. There are many more things that I want to do and that I can do.”
Physics is a science that studies the interactions of matter and energy. One may surmise that progress is the result of precise planning, but not always, according to Eckhard Krotscheck.
“It has been said that science is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, but the highlights of science are based on that 1 percent inspiration, and these are never very well planned. You simply can't sit down in your office and plan to have a good idea.” Krotscheck says.
“I can show you from my past that the best pieces of work that I’ve ever done were not really planned. You encounter a problem, you meet somebody, you discuss something, you have an idea and then say, ‘Oh, let’s look at this.’ Of course, hard work is required when one carries the idea out.”
Within his career, the senior physicist points to his entrance into the field of theoretical condensed matter physics, the development of an entire branch of his research and his arrival last year as a professor on the faculty of UB’s Department of Physics.
The latter occurred as a result of a professional relationship that was kindled in the 1980s between Francis Gasparini, UB Distinguished Professor and former physics department chair, and Krotscheck, a professor at Texas A&M University at the time, who met at a conference and commenced a longtime communication. Since 1995, Krotscheck had been teaching at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria. Krotscheck caught up with Gasparini during a recent visit to Buffalo.
“We are doing a similar kind of physics—he’s doing experimental, I’m doing theory,” Krotscheck explains. “I came here for a seminar, we talked, then an adjunct appointment came about (at UB) and it turned out they were looking for a senior theorist.”
Krotscheck had reached Europe’s mandatory retirement age of 65. He spent three months last year in the adjunct role and is now on staff as a faculty member, set to be full time in the fall.
“The atmosphere in the department is very congenial,” he says. “I never felt as welcome anywhere as I do here.”
He points to the department’s continued climb in reputation, as noted in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “There has been wise leadership here, with a young group of brilliant condensed matter theorists who are amazingly well funded, even in these tight times. They are continuing a long tradition in the department of active research in the area of condensed matter physics,” Krotscheck says.
Originally from Austria, Krotscheck came to his field as a PhD student. Frustrated as a PhD student in Germany by a professor’s shrug of insolvability of a physics question, Krotscheck proceeded to develop a new method for the so-called many-body problem. “It’s about how many particles interact with each other. For example, why is the water liquid and at what temperature does it boil? But I’m not dealing with water—I’m dealing with helium. It’s more difficult because it’s a quantum system. The basic question is to bridge the gap from how two individual particles see each other and how we as humans can perceive the consequences of that interaction. Matter comes in all kinds of different shapes and appearances. The field of applications is enormous,” he says.
“A student of mine once said, ‘If you want to build a new, better nutcracker, you try it out on the hardest nuts.’ And (helium) is really one of the hardest nuts you can crack. Once you have the machinery, the tools, you can apply them to solid-state physics. Nowadays, one of the things we are looking at is gas absorption. The task here is to store gases in a solid matrix for further use as an energy carrier.”
In another career turn, Krotscheck says that an entire branch of his research was built on the programming error of a student. “I gave him a task to do in his PhD thesis and he came back with the answer that, no, what you’re suggesting doesn’t work. I trusted him and then I developed a new method to solve a certain complicated equation. We published the method. If he hadn’t made this programming error, his PhD thesis would have come out in a completely different way,” he says.
Krotscheck currently has a project in progress to understand the transition of particles from small systems to a large system. He cites magnesium as an example. “If you make a cluster of 20 magnesium atoms, it acts as an insulator. Magnesium itself is a metal. Why isn’t 20 particles of magnesium also a metal? How does it transition from the tiny scale to a scale that you can see and touch? Making experiments on these clusters is a problem because it immediately oxidizes,” he explains. “The experimentalists, therefore, cover this small cluster of magnesium with helium, which suppresses oxidation so that then you can study it. We want to basically tell the experimentalists how this combined system grows, and for that we need to know how the helium is absorbed.”
The research proposal includes support for visiting faculty. “Perhaps over the next year we can get a number of very senior people to visit us here, then hopefully generate some corporation to sponsor it. The strategy of bringing senior people here would raise the visibility of the physics department,” he notes.
Krotscheck says his hope is to bring the department into more newspapers or scientific journals. Both he and Gasparini recently published papers in the most prestigious scientific journal, Nature. They are beginning to organize two major conferences in Niagara Falls in 2015, one on quantum fluids and the other on condensed matter theory.
After 35 years in the field, the physicist is embracing his new role at UB. “A colleague of mine at a conference last year congratulated Frank for hiring me and said, ‘We should be thankful for the European retirement system. Our gain is their loss.’” he smiles. “I’m enjoying myself. I’m full of ideas. There are many more things that I want to do and that I can do.”