By: Don Mock firstname.lastname@example.org
What would you rather do – drill water wells or study physics? UF physics professor Dr. Mark Meisel has tried both and would definitely recommend the latter. In fact, it was drilling for water under the hot Nebraska sun to earn money for college expenses that convinced him it would be far better to use his brains than his brawn to earn a living. It also gave him a great appreciation for the value of a hard-earned dollar.
Dr. Meisel lived much of his early years by moving every two years, until his father left the Navy and the family settled down in Omaha, Nebraska. He played on his high school’s football team, earning All-State honors in his senior year, and entered Northwestern University as a walk-on offensive lineman. An injury to his foot that first winter convinced him to get serious with his academics. At first, he kept his options open to pursue physics, chemistry, math, or engineering as his major, but an introductory course in Modern Physics at the start of his second year got him “completely hooked” on quantum mechanics.
For three years, Dr. Meisel covered his living expenses as a work-study student in the low temperature lab of Dr. William Halperin. Each summer, he worked on a drilling rig that went around to farms and villages in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa to replace and deepen water wells that had been left high and dry as water tables receded. Although the summer pay was good, the work was back-breaking. To get his tuition-money’s worth at NU, he soon had a very intense schedule of classes. By the end of his junior year he had completed all the requirements for his major in physics. For his senior year, he completed all the core courses for first-year graduate students. Three years later, in 1983, he completed his doctorate under Dr. Halperin on the topic of passing ultrasound through liquid Helium-3. (As a side note, during his last year at Northwestern, he met David Reitze, who was a physics major, and Hai-Ping Cheng, who had entered the graduate program. Both later became professors at UF.)
After a NATO Postdoctoral Fellowship doing low temperature research at the Laboratorie de Physique des Solides in Orsay, France, Dr. Meisel took a position as a research scientist at UF’s just-formed Microkelvin Research Laboratory. In his first year, he helped design the new facility located in an empty parking lot. In his second year, he ordered the lab’s equipment. By his third year, with the new lab now up and running, he made the transition to a physics tenure track position and has been making good use of the facility ever since.
As an experimentalist, Dr. Meisel’s current research focus is to find new material systems that can act as tiny magnetic switches that will flip their magnetic polarity in the presence of light, pressure, or temperature triggers. Many materials will change their physical properties when in contact with other substances, but finding the right combination, and in the right ratios, is a considerable challenge. As Dr. Meisel explains it, “It’s like making a great salami sandwich – a little bread, a little mustard, a little meat – how you combine those ingredients will make all the difference in how it tastes.”
It helps to conduct the search for promising materials at low temperatures, since a useful property, like magnetic ‘switching’, is easier to detect without a lot of background noise. “Reducing the temperature of this type of experiment is a bit like weeding a garden. It lets you see the flowers.” Once a promising material has been identified, its composition can be tweaked to see if the desired trait can be enhanced and made to appear at ever higher temperatures. In collaboration with Prof. Dan Talham’s team in UF Chemistry, Dr. Meisel’s group found one promising candidate at 20 K that could be tweaked to work at 70 K and, now, 120 K. Why is this important? Because a microscopic magnetic switch operating at room temperature could be the foundation of a whole-new class of nanoscale technologies, including molecular-sized memory devices and quantum computers. It’s called ‘device-inspired research’.
Photo: Meisel is awarded an honorary degree of “doctor honoris causa” by Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Košice, Slovak Republic.
The Microkelvin Lab and UF’s participation in the National High Magnetic Field Lab (with major facilities at UF, FSU, and Los Alamos) make Gainesville an ideal place for Dr. Meisel’s kind of research. But when he first got here from France in 1986, he thought he had arrived, culturally, at the ends of the earth. “I remember when the London Philharmonic performed in the O-Dome. The audience was eating popcorn and cotton candy in the bleachers.” He and his wife, Anna-Lisa, a research professor in Horticultural Sciences, participated in the grand opening of the state-of-the-art Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. “And my wife, a Floridian, introduced me to all the outdoor activities – hiking, canoeing, camping – that you can do in North Florida year round.” Now he has no complaints.
He shares his love of science with local grade-school students, going to interact with a class several times a year. “Third to fifth-grades are the sweet spot.” He likes to bring the kids a “goodie bag” filled with items like balls of different weights to test Galileo and various binder clips to study mechanical advantage. The purpose is to stimulate the imagination. “You never know when you might make a big difference in a child’s life – maybe you’ll inspire them to go into science and make the next great discovery.” Or at the very least, have them better understand science when they become adults. After all, in an increasingly technology-based society, it can only help to have voters and decision-makers who appreciate rather than fear science. And when these kids come to that age where they have to decide their own futures, maybe even between a career of brain or brawn, perhaps Dr. Meisel will have helped to provide them with more and better choices.