A scholar, gentleman and esteemed colleague at Berkeley Physics for more than 55 years
Berkeley Physics Professor Emeritus Eugene D. Commins passed away on September 26, 2015 after a brief illness. He was 83.
Born in New York City, Commins attended the Bronx High School of Science and Swarthmore College. Shortly after receiving his Ph.D. from Columbia, and while serving as a research physicist there, he met Ulla Grip at the United Nations. They married a few months later in Stockholm and Commins soon learned to speak fluent Swedish. He joined Berkeley Physics in 1960 as an Assistant Professor and became Associate Professor in 1965. He spent the 1967-1968 academic year as a guest professor at the University of Rome and in the process learned Italian and developed a love for that country. In 1969 he became Professor, serving as the chair of the Berkeley Physics Department from 1972-1974. In 2005, he was named Professor Emeritus.
Although he retired in 2001 he remained active in the department, continuing to teach and informally mentor Physics department students. That same year, colleagues, friends and former students gathered to honor him with the “ComminsFest Symposium.” The two-day event featured an array of distinguished speakers, most of whom traced their academic lineage to Commins and included talks on Commins' past and present scientific interests, highlighting his passion for music and art. For most of his life, Commins played violin and viola and was part of a regular string quartet. He was also an accomplished and prolific painter. The conference proceedings, Art and Symmetry in Experimental Physics was published shortly thereafter. In 2014, Commins authored the book, Quantum Mechanics: an Experimentalist’s Approach. It was an outgrowth of lecture notes he developed while teaching Physics 221AB frequently between 1965 and 2010.
Professor Commins and a group of his students, including future Nobelist and U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, were among the first to observe atomic parity violation, a subtle effect of the fundamental weak interactions. These experiments confirmed the Weinberg-Salam-Glashow model which is at the core of what is now called “The Standard Model” and for which the three theorists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979.
A natural educator who was loved by his students, Commins was awarded UC Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching award twice, first in 1963 and then again in 1979. He was named a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1987. In 2001, he was awarded the Berkeley Citation, which is given to individuals whose achievements exceed the standard of excellence in their fields. In 2005, he was the honoree of the Oersted Medal, by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). This award, named after Hans Christian Oersted, recognizes those who have had an outstanding, widespread, and lasting impact on the teaching of physics. In 2010, AAPT also awarded him the first J.D. Jackson Excellence in Graduate Education Award, a prestigious accolade given by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). Commins is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow with the American Physical Society (APS).
“Eugene Commins was an outstanding professor and a recognized pioneer in the development of high precision experimental methods for measuring minuscule atomic effects of fundamental physical importance,” noted Steve Boggs, Berkeley Physics Department Chair. “He spent much of his career searching for the electric dipole moment of the electron – a measurement that has important bearing on the Standard Model of particle physics. His impact on our department, as a colleague, educator and mentor simply cannot be measured. He will be deeply missed."
Commins is survived by his wife, Iris and son David, daughter-in-law Suzanne and grandchildren Nicoletta and Luke. He is also survived by his sister Frances Bennett, nieces Jean Bennett, Nancy Bennett and Peggy Lynch Bennett.
Memories of Eugene Commins
Share your memories of Eugene Commins
Eugene Commins Academic Biography
Berkeley Science Review article
Watch his 2012 Neutrino Lecture at Bishop O'Dowd High School
The Eugene D. Commins Chair in Experimental Physics fact sheet
A lifetime of accomplishments photo album (flickr album)