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Influential Purdue Physics professor remembered at lecture series


Dr. John Hopfield talks about his mentor, the late Dr. Albert Overhauser, in a Physics Building lecture hall.


The memory of revered Purdue Physics Prof. Albert W. Overhauser was honored with the convening of former students and colleagues during the 2013 Overhauser Memorial Lectures, which were held on campus April 17 and 18.

Dr. Overhauser was the Stuart Distinguished Professor of Physics at Purdue from 1974 to 2004. He passed away in 2011.

Before his time at Purdue, Overhauser was one of the nation’s top young scientists at Cornell University. It was there in 1953 that he established what would later be called the Nuclear Overhauser Effect, which describes the transfer of nuclear spin polarization from one nuclear spin population to another via cross-relaxation. This phenomenon is often observed by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.


Albert Overhauser

It was one of Overhauser’s first graduate students at Cornell that helped lead the tributes inside a lecture hall in the Physics Building on April 18. Dr. John Hopfield, who received his PhD in 1958 under Overhauser’s tutelage, went on to make strides in theoretical physics working with light interaction with solids. Later in his career, Dr. Hopfield switched to a biological focus — looking at biomedical selectivity and mathematical descriptions of the nervous system.

During Hopfield’s years under Overhauser, his mentor never mentioned the Overhauser Effect in any classes or meetings, Hopfield said. While many would say it was Overhauser’s most famous work, Hopfield continued that it is not the most cited: A 1958 paper he wrote with Bertram Dick Jr. called “Theory of the Dielectric Constants of Alkali Halide Crystals” has received triple the citations over the years.

Hopfield is best known for inventing the associative neural network — now commonly called the Hopfield Network. Back in his Physics days at Cornell, Overhauser was the first to approve Hopfield’s first paper “The Contribution of Excitons to the Complex Dielectric Constant of Crystals” in 1958.

Hopfield recalled a meeting where Overhauser let him know he had completed his PhD by simply stating, “Write up your understanding.”

“I met with him every two or three weeks and I was always nervous because I felt I wasn’t making much progress,” Hopfield admitted. “He took a real interest in the problem but never lead me forward. It was so frustrating yet so rewarding.”

Overahauser helped Hopfield and thousands of other students find their own discoveries and careers by guiding but never inserting himself into the work.

“Al was a wonderful mentor for me and for many others,” Hopfield said.

After Hopfield, others gave brief thoughts and shared memories of Overhauser: Anant Ramdas, Karl Lark-Horovitz Distinguished Professor; Jurgen Honig, Professor Emeritus, Chemistry; Prof. Stephen Durbin, who delivered remarks on behalf of Roberto Colella, Prof. Emeritus.; Prof. Ephraim Fischbach, and Alova Overhauser, Dr. Overhauser’s daughter. 

On April 17, the Department of Physics welcomed Dr. Sam Werner of University of Missouri for his lecture “The Effect of the Earth’s Gravity and Rotation on the Quantum Mechanical Phase of the Neutron” and Prof. Tony Arrott and his talk “The Effect of Overhauser on Many.”

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