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Feature

Allen Goldman

New Regents Professor of Physics Allen Goldman credits his graduate students with much of his success--and vice versa.

Physicist Allen Goldman, three others named Regents Professors

Regents Professor is highest rank for University faculty

By Deane Morrison

June 24, 2008

The last few years have been heady ones for Allen Goldman. In 2002 he won the coveted Fritz London Prize, one of the top prizes in physics, and last year he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Now he has garnered an honor that reflects the admiration of the people who know him best: his colleagues at the University. Goldman, head of the University's School of Physics and Astronomy, is one of four faculty members just elected Regents Professors, the highest faculty rank. The others are Madelon Sprengnether, English; Eric Sheppard, geography; and Steven Ruggles, history. All will be profiled in this space soon.

A brobdingnagian output

"My feeling is I didn't do this alone," says Goldman of his new status. "I had excellent graduate students and extraordinary support from other faculty and staff in physics. They deserve some credit for helping to make this happen." If there's one term to describe Goldman (besides self-effacing), it would be prolific. Or prodigious. The graduate of Harvard and Stanford, who joined the University of Minnesota as an assistant professor in 1965, has more than 250 research publications to his credit. He has made an indelible mark 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 thin 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. 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 100 times every year. Lately, he has found another way to induce superconductivity.

"He let me design and build equipment for more than 18 months. It is only now when I am a professor that I have come to respect the enormous gamble that he took with me as a student."

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 have "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 Centigrade degree above absolute zero. (Absolute zero--minus 459.67 F--is the coldest anything can get. It cannot be achieved artificially.)

A new generation of physicists

But in an age when a faculty member may stand up at his retirement party and recall with pride having mentored 15 or 20 doctoral students during his career, Goldman's accomplishments in that area are off the chart. To date, he has shepherded 52 students to their Ph.Ds, with five more yet to finish. Many are professors themselves, with lifelong appreciation for Goldman's skills as a mentor. "Allen worked so hard that he seemed to always have a cup of coffee in hand to help him stay awake," says Ying Liu, professor of physics at Pennsylvania State University. "The only time he had time for in-depth discussion of physics seemed to be during the weekend. ... I probably learned more physics from him during those weekend discussion sessions than all weekdays combined." Goldman also trusted his students. "Allen took me on as a student and within the first six months gave me a budget of $100,000 and an idea to pursue," says Brad Orr, director of applied physics at the University of Michigan. "He let me design and build equipment for more than 18 months. It is only now when I am a professor that I have come to respect the enormous gamble that he took with me as a student. "Operating more as a colleague then as a supervisor, he watched the project bloom successfully. As a child owes his personality to his parents, I owe my professional career to Allen Goldman."