Breakthrough for Buchholtz

Physicist Lou Buchholtz made a monumental scientific
breakthrough with his solution for Fermi superfluid
equations. (photo KM)
The Fulbright offered a romantic dream come true for physics professor Louis Buchholtz: to live in a German village on the Rhine River and work unhindered on his long-held passion—Fermi superfluids.

The breakthrough came when he solved a fundamental algorithm for exploiting—and solving—Fermi superfluids equations. In physics-speak this is what Buchholtz called a "boundary condition." "And we have a brand new construct in this theory; it's quite abstract, and I was able to do a full tilt, a full calculation, using it," he said.

In lay terms, his calculations are now being used in equations that have direct technical applications in the field of superconductivity, which is the area of persistent (no loss) current.

As such, superconductivity has already produced the advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and is being studied for future applications in areas including generation, storage, and transmission of energy, as well as the more futuristic superconducting magnetic levitation train.

Leading-edge work, but the theory itself, said Buchholtz, could not have been solved in America. Instead, he had to reach back into a European history most American scientists ignore.

"Americans tend to be whiz-bang," he explained, "and work very furiously at whatever's in front of them." A trait which produces quick results but often ignores a deeper insight.

"Europeans train their students in a more historically connected way," Buchholtz added, "so you sacrifice the immediate result but have hopes of a deeper understanding in the long run."

This "deeper expression of theory" was nothing new for the award-winning physicist, who'd been seeking answers for nearly twenty-five years. He always knew it was a project that had no end. "And that's the mark of a really good one," he said. "You inherit it from somebody, then carry it on, and give it to younger students as they come along."

Buchholtz inherited the idea as a young Ph.D. fresh from Stanford, on fellowship in Germany for post-doctorate work, when he met his mentor, Austrian physicist Dierk Rainer.

When Rainer shared a scientific paper with Buchholtz a few years ago—a paper Rainer considered one of his best from a lifetime of potent works—Buchholtz was "pretty amazed. And I looked at it and said, I think I can use this."

He was right. But he had to wait three years for the 1994 Fulbright that would allow him to return and solve the equation.

When he did, his work was a lot more successful than even he imagined. Buchholtz called it a golden moment. "I literally just sat at my desk and worked very slowly and very thoroughly (for a conclusion), and that was beautiful."

In superconductivity, explained Buchholtz about his findings, "There is a set of phenomena which look very different from one another on the outside, but are very similar on the inside. And there are other phenomenon as well," he noted, "that look quite different, that happen in a variety of liquids that are exactly the same phenomena, described by the same mathematical theories.

"And that, of course, is the beauty of physics," he added. "That inner principles link things that look different, but actually underneath are the same."

Like the German dissertations he spends his time dissecting, Buchholtz said that while this research may sound abstract, such theories have great predictive powers.

"If you were to look at some of these theories blank," he explained, "you'd think, `What the heck are they doing?' But if you understand the historical progression linked to areas of the past, it makes very beautiful sense."

A beautiful sense best understood by theorists such as Buchholtz, who noted that the practical applications are up to the engineers.

"I'm not interested in that as a scientist," he admitted. "I'm interested in the expression of fundamental physical laws, physics without any clutter, and that's pretty wild."

It's heavy stuff, which often takes a back seat to his rigorous teaching schedule and demands of community and family life.

"The frustration of life is that I'm over-burdened with good things," he lamented, adding that even now he's waiting for summer, so he can write up the equations his theory produced.

That brings him to the classic pull between research and teaching. "There's always tension," he said about that pull. So far the arrangement has worked for him primarily because a theorist doesn't need a laboratory, and he has quick access to other scientists through the Internet.

"What my life has evolved into is the ability to set some time apart and do stuff like this. So I can still be near big things, be very creative and very high level."

He finds this creativity enormously important to his teaching. "You bring it back," he said about returning to the classroom. "I find it so refreshing, and it reminds me of the worth of it all. I'd grow pretty stale without it."


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