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Feature

Allen Goldman, physicist

Allen Goldman's election to the National Academy of Sciences honors a career filled with discoveries in the science of superconductivity.

Physicist elected to National Academy of Sciences

Election to the academy is an honor often considered second to the Nobel Prize

By Deane Morrison

May 1, 2007

Early the morning of May 1, Allen Goldman's phone started ringing. As head of the University's School of Physics and Astronomy, Goldman is used to that. But this time the message was one every American scientist longs to hear: Goldman, a pioneer in the field of superconductivity, had just been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. The academy, established in 1863 by Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to advise the federal government on scientific matters, meets every spring to elect new members. With the addition of Goldman and 71 others elected May 1, the active membership now stands at 2,025--a tiny proportion of all professional scientists in the country. "I feel honored by this," says Goldman. But, he hastens to add, "I feel my success is largely due to the many strong graduate students who have worked with me over the past 40 years." One of the joys of being a professor, in Goldman's eyes, is watching a highly capable graduate student take an idea and run with it, coming up with discoveries that the professor may never have gotten around to making. Goldman has shepherded 50 graduate students through to the doctoral level, with five more yet to finish. Several, like their mentor, are professors in research universities. The academy election recognizes Goldman's outstanding work in the field of superconductivity, the state in which materials lose their electrical resistance and electrons can flow freely. He and his team have found ways to construct and study films of metals only a few atoms thick. Around 1979, his team discovered electrons undulating through a superconducting material in sync--that is, in waves where all the electrons moved up and down together, "like sound waves," Goldman says.

"I feel honored by this," says Goldman. "But I feel my success is largely due to the many strong graduate students who have worked with me over the past 40 years."

That research caused a stir in the superconductivity community, as did a subsequent discovery of a way to switch a thin film of metal from being an insulator to being just the opposite--a superconductor--or vice versa. That work is cited by other scientists about a hundred times every year. Lately, he has found another way to induce superconductivity, this time by adding negative charges to thin films of metal that previously acted as insulators. Research in superconductivity is considered critical to the development of new materials for electronics and electrical technology. While superconductivity may be a hot field, the science is carried out at extremely low temperatures. Goldman jokes that his lab may contain "the coldest macroscopic space in Minnesota." It's only a small space, measured in cubic centimeters, but its temperature gets down to three-hundredths of a degree Kelvin. (Zero degrees Kelvin is defined as absolute zero--the coldest anything can get--and is equivalent to minus 459.67 F. Most of outer space is about 3 Kelvin.) A graduate of Harvard University, Goldman received a doctorate from Stanford University and joined the University of Minnesota in 1965 as an assistant professor. Now an Institute of Technology Professor of Physics, he has produced more than 250 research publications and has delivered hundreds of talks about his work to audiences around the world. He has been elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society, and in 2002 he received the Fritz London Memorial Prize, one of the highest honors in physics. "We are very proud of Professor Goldman's accomplishments and his election to the National Academy of Sciences," said Steven Crouch, dean of the University's Institute of Technology. "Like many others on our faculty, he is humble about his ongoing, cutting-edge research. We're happy he's in the spotlight with this honor."