Prof. Albert Overhauser remembered in Physics Today
Albert Warner Overhauser, Stuart Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Physics at Purdue University, died on 10 December 2011 in West Lafayette, Indiana, of sudden cardiac arrest. Only the day before he was in his departmental office of 38 years, as was his custom—retirement notwithstanding. One of the last of a generation of American physicists to command a broad range of interests, Overhauser’s fundamental and highly innovative ideas continue to make a significant impact on science and technology.
Overhauser was born in San Diego, California, on 17 August 1925. A precocious musical talent, he saw a career in music nipped in the bud by familial diktat. His walk across the Golden Gate Bridge on 27 May 1937—the day it opened—stoked his interest in civil engineering. In 1942 he entered the University of California, Berkeley. During World War II, he was a radar technical specialist in the US Navy Reserve. Back at Berkeley, his “most wonderful professors” lit a passion for physics that would remain with him for the rest of his life.
In 1948 Overhauser received a BS in physics and mathematics. That condensed-matter physics would be his main playground was due to serendipity; Overhauser’s original aspirations to earn a PhD in nuclear physics at Berkeley were dashed when his adviser, Gian-Carlo Wick, decided to leave as a consequence of the loyalty-oath fiasco. Overhauser instead became one of the earliest students of Charles Kittel, who was in the process of moving to Berkeley from Bell Labs. During one visit to Berkeley, Kittel assigned Overhauser his thesis subject: a thorough study of the possible spin-relaxation mechanisms in metals. Astonishingly, Overhauser had completed the task by the time Kittel returned a few months later, and he earned his PhD in 1951.