Zachary Fisk, distinguished professor of physics, University of California, Irvine

Physics leader follows in footsteps of giants.

Zachary Fisk has followed the footsteps of some formidable physicists — and then blazed his own trail. Not only was his father president of Bell Labs in New Jersey, Fisk worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory alongside some of the Manhattan Project crowd while taking a break from his undergraduate study at Harvard University. At Los Alamos his interest in synthesizing chemicals created a bond with his mentor, Bernd Matthias. Fisk helped set up Matthias's lab at the University of California, San Diego, and later, as Matthias's graduate student, Fisk made huge numbers of intermetallic compounds to explore their superconducting and magnetic properties. (See CV)

After Matthias died, Fisk was offered a job at Los Alamos. He worked out a 'poor man's' technique for growing crystals from molten metals as they cool. The soon-to-become Los Alamos director Siegfried Hecker wanted to study radioactive metals for bomb research, so Fisk grew crystals to help him. His work took on an exploratory nature: “I'm more of a hunter-gatherer,” he says of his interest in finding systems where physics plays out simply. Fisk sought to legitimize the military work to the community by promoting its societal applications — in the process establishing Los Alamos as a powerhouse in condensed matter physics.

Later, Fisk followed the National High Magnetic Field lab's move to Florida State University at Tallahassee to take advantage of its magnetic probes. These are useful for experiments with heavy-fermion materials whose properties lie at the boundary of magnetism — his forte.

Indeed, Fisk has met with success working at the boundaries of science. “Bridging the gap between what solid-state chemists and condensed matter physicists are interested in was not easy,” he says. “But it was where the interesting science was happening.”

Family considerations brought him to the University of California, Davis, two years ago. Eager to get back to the San Diego region, Fisk recently joined the faculty at University of California, Irvine, where he plans to continue his lifelong work on heavy-fermion intermetallics and their superconductive roots. Fisk has never forgotten Matthias's advice to comb the literature for data, not conclusions. Matthias contended that people are much better at measuring things than understanding their significance. Fisk agrees. “Developing a nose for when something doesn't add up allows you to go to new places,” he says.

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Gewin, V. Zachary Fisk, distinguished professor of physics, University of California, Irvine. Nature 440, 1242 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7088-1242a

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