Twenty Years of Fun with Gen

A reminiscence of Gen Shirane at the time of his 65th birthday

by Robert J. Birgeneau

Obviously, for all of us, Gen's sixty-fifth birthday is a very special time.  It turns out that it is particularly propitious for me since it also represents the 20th anniversary of the beginning of my personal collabo-ration with Gen.  Specifically, it is exactly 20 years since Gen and I published our first paper together - an esoteric tome on two-dimensional spin correlations in an odd material named K2NiF4!  I cannot say that either Gen or I had the remotest sense at that time of how important that work would turn out to be two decades later - thanks, of course, to Alex Müllcr and George Bednorz.

I began working with Gen shortly after my arrival at Bell Laboratories.  Gen had realized that for the success of the solid state effort at the HFBR he should encourage outsiders from major solid state research institutions such as Bell Laboratories and IBM to begin using the facilities and collaborating with the Brookhaven group.  Thus Gen initiated what may be the first neutron scattering outside users' program.  I arrived at Bell Labs intending to do infrared spectroscopy but was given a free ticket to do whatever I wanted.  After reading Gen and Bob Nathans' first publications from the HFBR, I decided that neutron scattering was going to be very important and hence decided to change directions.  For my first experiment at Brookhaven I decided to begin with K2NiF4.  Gen, of course, instantly understood what the issues were and he launched into the experiments with his usual energy and drive.  I will never forget Gen's basic principle in doing research which he explained to me right in the beginning, "There are only two experiments that matter, the first and the best.  The ultimate is when these two are one and the same".

Our original 2D measurements led into a long series of experiments on a wide variety of topics: one- and two-dimensional magnets, the co-operative Jahn-Teller effect, amorphous magnets, percolation, spin dynamics in disordered magnets, random fields and, of course, high-temper-ature superconductors.  To date, Gen and I have co-authored 76 papers with at least two appearing every year since 1969.  It will not surprise those of you familiar with Gen' s English prose that I ended up doing most of the actual writing.  Indeed, I often felt that my principal role has been as Gen's ghost-writer.

Anyone who has worked with Gen knows well his competitive instincts - $10 bets abound in all difficult experiments.  Once, in a rather complicated experiment on PrA1O3 I decided to change the nature of the bet.  Both Gen, on the one hand, and Jørgen Kjems and I on the other would attempt a particular measurement.  The side which got the worst signal-to-background would have to address the entire neutron group and explain how and why he/they failed.  This turned out to be one of the few cases where Gen actually lost and we insisted on collecting.  To our surprise, Gen agreed to address the group.  He then stood up and explained first his technique and then ours.  He then announced that this was a great triumph for him since it showed that he was an even better teacher than he himself had realized.

Of course, the quintessential Gen has manifested himself most dramatically in the high-Tc problem.  These experiments inevitably involve a huge number of collaborators.  Early on, we were searching without success for signs of the 2D magnetism in La2CuO4 which we knew had to be there.  Gen decided that we could only make progress if for a limited time he reduced the participants to himself and his graduate student - me.  Gen is probably the only physicist I know who could have MIT's Head of Physics as a de facto graduate student.  Thus, on a lonely July 4 weekend, Gen and I began our search for the missing 2D magnetism.  After 2 days we had it.  Gen then insisted that I should go over to the Physics building and start writing the article while he continued the experiments by himself.  The real issue, of course, was that I wanted to document a few things with great care while Gen wanted to measure everything one could measure in the next two days and he wanted to do this alone.  After a few hours of wrangling Gen conceded and we took the publication data on the statics.

As everyone who has worked with Gen knows, he has very high standards and an unerring instinct for the important issues.  He also enjoys tremendously interacting with high quality collaborators.  Thus he has brought to Brookhaven for extended lengths of time, such outstanding physicists as Jens Als-Nielsen, Roger Cowley and Robert Comes to name a few. Other outside users such as myself have profited greatly from collaborating with these very talented visitors.

It is broadly recognized that the United States has played a leading role world wide in neutron scattering for the last two decades.  This prominence has been achieved by the efforts of many fine physicists.  Finally, however, one must say that the U.S. effort has prospered primarily because of Gen's leadership.  He has trained many of us.  Further, by his extraordinarily high intellectual, moral, and professional standards he has provided an ideal role model for the entire community.  I can think of no other person who plays such a singular role in solid-state physics. We are very fortunate to have him among us.

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Last Modified: Wednesday, 26-Jan-2005 16:52:47 EST

One of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific facilities available to university, industry and government researchers. Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE’s Office of Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company founded by Stony Brook University, the largest academic user of Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit, applied science and technology organization.

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