Remembering Charles Elbaum, Professor Emeritus of Physics

charles elbaumThe Department of Physics mourns the loss of our beloved colleague and friend Charles Elbaum, who passed away Sunday, March 4, 2018. Elbaum joined Brown’s Physics Department in 1959 as Assistant Professor of Applied Physics, served as chair of the department from 1980 to 1986, and was appointed the Hazard Professor of Physics in 1991.

Charles was a beloved teacher and mentor to countless students and a valued colleague and leader to the faculty and staff in the Department of Physics and the larger Physics community. During his distinguished career, he made many important contributions to the field of condensed matter physics, particularly, at very low temperatures. He was a leading expert in the properties of quantum solids and liquid helium, crystal defects and their interactions, diffusion in solids, ultrasonic waves and acoustics in solids, metallurgy, superconductivity, and vortex dynamics near the superconducting phase transition. He was a prolific author of many highly-cited scientific papers, books, and book chapters, as well as the owner of eight patents. In addition to his work in physics, Elbaum made key contributions to the areas of neural networks and synaptic plasticity. In 1975 Elbaum, along with Professor Leon N Cooper, founded Nestor Inc., a company dedicated to finding commercial applications for neural networks. Nestor’s impressive list of customers included General Electric, Ford Motor, Chemical Bank, Hughes Aircraft, Lockheed, Morgan Stanley, and Salomon Bros.

Because of his slight build and easy going demeanor many were shocked to learn what an outstanding, highly competitive athlete Charles was. His exploits on the slopes of Mt. Washington’s treacherous Tuckerman Ravine are the stuff of legend. Professor Bob Lanou remembers, “No matter what Charles chose for a run the reward of watching him do it was a joy. With consummate grace and sure grip with his edges in series after series of linked turns under full speed, he would [complete the run] more than 95% of the time with no emergency stop or tumble… he was the picture of high speed grace under full control… he would urge us to do as many runs as we could manage, and still have enough energy to hike and ski back to our hut or lodge at the bottom.” Knee problems eventually forced Charles to give up skiing, but did not prevent him from being active, “he immediately took up windsurfing, and stuck with it through two knee replacements,” according to his son Michael, “he didn’t stop windsurfing until he turned 81.”

Charles was as beloved by Physics staff as he was by his fellow faculty members. His cheerful demeanor and philosophical quips brightened many a day. He was kind and took a genuine interest in the lives of people around him. Assistant Financial/Operations Administrator Jean Miller remembers, “Professor Elbaum was a gentleman, he was polite, considerate, very intelligent, warm and humorous. No matter where you saw him, inside or outside of Brown, he was always engaging and happy that he saw you. It is very sad for me, I came here when I was in my 20's, a lot of great people who were members of this department are no longer with us.”

Before coming to Brown, Charles received both his Masters and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Toronto in 1954. He later served as a Research Fellow at the University of Toronto and Harvard University. He carried on research at the University of Paris, and at various government and industrial research laboratories during his long, distinguished career.  A Fellow of the American Physical Society, he officially retired from his tenured position in 2001 but remained active as a Professor of Physics (Research) for many years. 

Professor Leon N Cooper shares the sentiments of many when he says, “Charlie was a great colleague and a great friend. I will miss him.” Our deepest condolences to Professor Elbaum’s family, friends, and colleagues.