Skip to main content
Frederick Reif
In Memoriam

Frederick Reif

Professor of Physics, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

Our friend and colleague (and for one of us, Ph.D. advisor), Emeritus Professor of Physics Frederick Reif, passed away on August 11, 2019, at the age of 92. Fred was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1927. The family lived comfortably near the Prater in Vienna. Fred received violin lessons, in which he excelled (and would provide a lifelong solace). He began studies at the Gymnasium (high school) at age 10. Their pleasant life there ended with the rise of the Nazi regime and the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938. His father committed suicide that year, because he could no longer support his family working as a dentist. Fred, with his mother and sister, attempted to emigrate to Cuba on the ill-fated ship the S.S. St. Louis. Forbidden to land, they were turned back to Europe and found temporary sanctuary in France.

With his fluency in French, Fred assumed a fatherly role in making important decisions for the family. Their temporary safety ended with the German invasion of France in 1941. Fleeing again, they were fortunate to emigrate from France to New York via Portugal that same year.

Following high school in New York, Fred earned a scholarship to Columbia University. He was drafted and served 15 months in the service during the final days of World War II, returning to receive his bachelor’s degree from Columbia in 1948. He then entered Harvard University, where he earned a Ph.D. in physics under the guidance of Nobel Prize winner Edward Purcell. Then followed an unusual career. The focus of the first half of his career was on study of the properties of matter at low temperatures, while the last half focused on cognition and education research and the intricacies of learning such abstract subjects as physics.

Fred’s thesis at Harvard was a study of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in solid hydrogen. In that work he made the discovery of a magnetic resonance signal without the presence of an external magnetic field. He joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1953, where he continued NMR studies, culminating in a review article with Morrel Cohen a few years later on quadrupole effects in NMR studies of solids. In his Chicago laboratory he began to focus on studies of superfluid helium. With Lothar Meyer, he discovered a strange phenomenon: the greater the energy of an excess electron in the fluid, the slower it moved — a completely counterintuitive result.

Fred joined the faculty of the Department of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1960 and continued to follow up on this result. This led to one of his most important discoveries, namely that electrons in liquid helium became attached to microscopic, quantized vortex rings (liquid-flow structures similar to smoke rings). The observations matched precisely a prediction made a decade earlier by Lars Onsager and Richard Feynman. These results, reported by Fred and his student George Rayfield in 1965, still stand today as one of the cleanest experimental confirmations of the predicted behavior of superfluid helium.

Fred’s style of research was characterized by small-scale experiments and a keen focus on fundamental physics. His research group was always small, with just one or two students at a time. In 1962, he and his student Mike Woolf discovered gapless superconductivity. Their work confirmed the 1960 prediction of Abrikosov and Gor’kov for this effect. Gapless superconductivity was quite a controversial concept at the time. Until then, it was common to associate superconductivity with an energy gap in the electron excitation spectrum, but the theoretical prediction of gapless superconductivity was shown to be correct. As his final research in physics, Fred and a student discovered a mobile neutral excitation generated in superfluid helium by alpha particle bombardment. It was an electronically excited helium molecule encased in a bubble in the liquid. Their follow-up experiments shed light on ultraviolet luminescence from noble gas liquids and solids. Their results are now relevant to a current generation of neutrino and dark matter detectors.

In the 1960s, Fred authored his influential textbook, Fundamentals of Thermal and Statistical Physics, a subject important in many areas in physics, chemistry and biology. It is fair to say that his book changed the way this subject is taught. Teachers worldwide still consider it the best undergraduate text for this subject. He also authored an introductory text on this topic for the Berkeley Physics Course, a project funded by the National Science Foundation and designed to improve physics teaching at the introductory college level. He was the recipient of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1971.

It was partly through his textbooks that Fred became interested in finding out how an abstract topic such as physics could best be taught. He realized that less abstract material can be transferred from teacher to student in a straightforward manner by lecturing or reading. However, learning abstract concepts is quite different. It does not involve memory as much as other brain functions, and so understanding how people learn is as challenging a subject as physics itself. This question began to pull him away from physics research and led him to use his physics classes as a laboratory to unwrap the secrets of the psychology of learning. Towards this end, he and Robert Karplus formed an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at Berkeley known as SESAME (Graduate Group in Science and Mathematics Education) in 1969.

Fred joined Berkeley’s School of Education and chaired SESAME in the early 1970s, making the case (before cognitive science was a named discipline) that the rigorous multidisciplinary study of educational issues would be a fertile area for study. This was a novel approach to understand science learning. After 1969, his entire research focus was on the psychology of learning. Fred is regarded as a pioneer in physics education research (PER) beginning with the early article, “Science Education for Non-Science Students” (Science Magazine, 1969). At Berkeley, he chaired the search committee for faculty in the school’s program in Education, Math, Science, and Technology (EMST), the world’s first program in cognitive science and education.

In 1989, Fred moved to Carnegie Mellon University to continue his cognition and education research. There he held joint appointments in physics and psychology until his retirement in 2000. His final book, Applying Cognitive Science to Education: Thinking and Learning in Scientific and Other Complex Domains, was published in 2008.

Fred was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1988 he received a Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Excellence Award; and in 1994, he received the Robert A. Millikan Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) for his work in education research.

Fred regarded himself as a “pessimist who loved optimists.” He spent much of his childhood in fear and most of his adult life conquering the effects of it. Although he was not in danger in the U.S., he was unable to enjoy the lighter things in life such as cars, sports, and other things that his peers were interested in. A solace in life was playing the violin, which he began in Vienna, yet few ever heard him play. While he was a private person, he was open about the struggles he faced in coming to terms with his early life, which included the loss of his father to suicide and subsequently most of his extended family in the Holocaust. Late in life, he agreed to recount his Holocaust experiences to Pittsburgh-area high school students.

For those of us who knew him, he was inspirational in many ways, and his passing is an immense loss. The logic of his thought processes made him a true joy to interact with and learn from. And his dry wit was infectious. In a memorable discussion with another Berkeley professor and a student, he turned to the student and said: “that’s not such a stupid idea.” While it could have been a horrifying remark, the twinkle in his eye indicated that it was high praise indeed (Fred-Reif style) – praise that the student regards with great fondness to this day.

Professor Reif is survived by his wife, sociological gerontologist and nurse Laura (Ott) Reif, his former wife and cognitive scientist Jill (Larkin) Wellman, sister and biochemist Liane Reif-Lehrer, brother-in-law and biochemist Sam Lehrer, nephew and artist Damon Lehrer, and niece, cultural anthropologist Erica Lehrer.

Richard Packard
Clifford Surko

Authors’ notes: Some of the material for this memoriam comes from two obituaries by his niece Erica Lehrer, American Association of Physics Teachers; and Janice Crompton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The portrait is by Alexander Ty, La Jolla, CA.