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Eugene D. Commins
In Memoriam

Eugene D. Commins

Professor of the Graduate School in Physics

UC Berkeley

Eugene David Commins, Professor of the Graduate School of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, is well-known for his pioneering work in the physics of weak interactions and experimental tests of fundamental symmetries of nature; for his legendary teaching; and for bringing up a remarkable group of Berkeley graduate students, most of whom went on to hold key positions in science and academia, including Nobel Laureate and former U.S. Energy Secretary (Steven Chu) and two National Laboratory directors (Steven Chu and Persis S. Drell).

Professor Commins passed away on September 26, 2015, at the age of 83 after a courageous fight with mesothelioma, during which he remained engaged in science and his lifelong pursuit of painting, until the last day.

Born in New York City, New York, on July 1, 1932, Commins attended the Bronx High School of Science and Swarthmore College. He was a graduate student at Columbia University, where his thesis advisor was Polycarp Kusch (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1955), but where he learned most of the hands-on experimental skills in atomic physics from a more junior scientist, Dr. Robert Novick. Eugene's thesis was on "Hyperfine Structure of the Metastable State of Singly Ionized Helium-3."

Shortly after receiving his Ph.D. in 1958, and while serving as a research physicist at Columbia, he met Ulla Grip, a translator at the United Nations. They married a few months later in Stockholm and Commins soon learned to speak fluent Swedish. He joined Berkeley's Department of Physics in 1960 as an assistant professor and became associate professor in 1965. He spent the 1967-68 academic year as a guest professor at the University of Rome and in the process learned Italian and developed a love for that country. This visit was when he began to work on Weak Interactions, an influential monograph that was published in 1973. A decade later, Commins published a completely reworked and largely expanded version of this book under the title Weak Interactions of Leptons and Quarks, coauthored by his Ph.D. student Philip H. Bucksbaum. In 1969, Eugene became a full professor, serving as the chair of the physics department from 1972 to 1974.

Although he retired in 2001, he remained active in the department, continuing to teach and mentor physics students. On the occasion of Professor Commins's retirement, colleagues, friends, and former students gathered to honor him with the "ComminsFest Symposium." The two-day event featured an array of distinguished speakers, most of whom traced their academic lineage to Professor Commins and included talks on his past and present scientific interests and touching upon his passion for music and art. For most of his life, Commins played violin and viola and was part of a regular string quartet, in addition to being an accomplished and prolific painter. The conference proceedings, Art and Symmetry in Experimental Physics, was published shortly thereafter.

In 2014, Commins authored the book, Quantum Mechanics: An Experimentalist's Approach. It is an outgrowth of lecture notes he developed while teaching Berkeley's graduate quantum mechanics course frequently between 1965 and 2010. Professor Commins carefully prepared for every lecture, no matter how often he taught the subject. His preparation technique was a bit unorthodox: each time, he would write out the entire lecture by hand, re-deriving all equations, without consulting any books or notes from previous years.

Professor Commins and a group of his students were among the first to observe atomic parity violation, a subtle effect of the fundamental weak interactions. These experiments confirmed the Weinberg-Salam-Glashow model, a theory that is at the core of what is now called "The Standard Model" and for which the three theorists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979.

For over a decade leading to Professor Commins's retirement, his main research focus was the measurement of the electron's electric dipole moment (EDM). The existence of such a moment is only possible due to simultaneous violation of the fundamental symmetries of parity and time-reversal invariance. In fact, both these symmetries are known to be violated by the weak interactions. At present, measuring the electric dipole moments is a key to unravelling some of the profound mysteries in modern physics, such as explaining the reason for the matter-antimatter asymmetry of the universe, without which we would not exist. Taking the methods of "traditional" atomic physics to their limits and putting together an intricate apparatus utilizing four dual counter- propagating atomic beams of thallium and sodium with his own hands, Commins with a few students and postdocs obtained unprecedented levels of sensitivity, setting a challenge for others to match. In fact, despite a number of groups pursuing the electron EDM measurements, it was over a decade before Commins's sensitivity record was superseded. Interestingly, the eventual breakthrough came from a molecular experiment, based on a combination of novel approaches, co-led by a former Commins Ph.D. student and postdoc, Professor David P. DeMille of Yale University.

A natural educator who was loved by his students, Commins was awarded the Berkeley Division's Distinguished Teaching Award twice, first in 1963 and then again in 1979. (Apparently, he is the only person to be honored by this award twice.) He was named a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1987. In 2001, he was awarded the Berkeley Citation, which is given to individuals whose achievements exceed the standard of excellence in their fields. In 2005, he was the honoree of the Oersted Medal, by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). This award, named after Hans Christian Oersted, recognizes those who have had an outstanding, widespread, and lasting impact on the teaching of physics. In 2010, AAPT also awarded him the first J. D. Jackson Excellence in Graduate Education Award, in honor of Professor Commins's colleague and friend at Berkeley. Commins was also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS).

An impression of Professor Commins's philosophy, personality, and style can be glimpsed from his own words written in 1993 for a UC Berkeley compilation, "What Good Teachers Say About Teaching:"

I have no definite philosophy of teaching, but after more than thirty years of experience I have learned a few things, most of them quite obvious.

The first and most important is that if one is to explain something clearly, one must first understand it.

The second is that students should be vigorously encouraged to play an active rather than passive role in their own education. Over the last thirty years I have observed among Berkeley students (especially undergraduates) an unfortunate and increasing tendency toward passivity, the desire to be "entertained." This may have something to do with the pervasiveness of television. It is regrettable that we occasionally pander to this tendency by rewarding teaching that is essentially nothing but show business. Perhaps we do this out of defensiveness to the repeated accusation that the Berkeley faculty ignores undergraduate teaching.

The last has to do with the training of graduate students in research. In my view, the most effective way to do this is by example, from day to day. I try to work together with my research students on perplexing questions and unsolved problems, and I do not like to ask them to undertake anything in the laboratory, however arduous, that I am not prepared to do myself. I like to think that in my laboratory they may learn general values, such as intellectual honesty, perseverance, and courage in the face of adversity, as well as specific technical and professional skills.

Commins is survived by his wife, Iris, son David, daughter-in-law Suzanne, and grandchildren Nicoletta and Luke. He is also survived by his sister Frances Bennett, nieces Jean Bennett, Nancy Bennett, and Peggy Lynch Bennett.

Dmitry Budker
Susan Houghton

The authors are grateful to Professors David P. DeMille, Persis S. Drell, Roger W. Falcone, Larry R. Hunter, and Robert A. Harris, and to Dr. Andreas Trabesinger, for their helpful comments on the draft article.