Memories of Professor Eugene Commins

Memories of Professor Eugene Commins

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“'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. His impact on our department, as a colleague, educator and mentor simply cannot be measured. He will be deeply missed."

~Steve Boggs, Chair, Berkeley Physics


"Eugene Commins had an uncanny ability to bring out the best in all his students. He was a model of what a scientist and mentor should be.”

~Steven Chu, Berkeley alum and Nobel Laureate


"I took graduate statistical mechanics and E&M with Prof. Commins during the 2004-2005 academic year. I was a senior at the time and one of the few, if not the only undergraduate taking those classes. I will never forget Prof. Commins' warmth, his amazing and clear lectures, and his endless generosity with is time. He was always ready to explain a particularly difficult concept or walk me through a derivation, and after the courses he was kind enough to let me keep his lecture notes and problem sets, which I treasure to this day. He was a truly remarkable teacher and it was my privilege to take classes with him. My deepest condolences to his family; his memory lives on in the person of the innumerable students who were fortunate enough to have had the benefit of his instruction."

~Jerry Vinokurov


"Professor Commins was my hero. As a student of Dmitry Budker's, I had the tremendous privilege of being Eugene's scientific grandson, and, not only that, but a grandson who lived next door to his grandfather. I always jumped at every opportunity I had to visit him and help take apart or put back together the enormous magnetic shields used for the Thallium EDM experiment, just to be near him and hear a few words of wisdom. I always regarded Eugene as one of the wisest people I had ever met. Eugene's wisdom extended far beyond physics. To me he represented the model of what it meant to live a good and true life.

On one of my visits to his lab, I asked him if he had any advice on how to be a good teacher. He told me "it is actually very simple: a good teacher truly understands what he is talking about, and a poor teacher does not." Professor Commins was a great teacher.

Eugene gave the after-dinner talk at the 70th birthday celebration of Max Zolotorev, my other scientific grandfather. As usual, he spoke without notes. Eugene weaved together story after story, each filled with brilliant humor and deep meaning, each word perfectly and beautifully chosen. At one point he noted that before he and Max had met, he had inquired with some acquaintances about what this fellow pioneer of atomic parity violation was like, and this acquaintance replied that he was something like the Mark Twain of Russian physics. Later he found out that Max, too, had inquired about him, and had been told that Eugene was something like the Sholom Aleichem of American physics. Of course, Sholom Aleichem was known as the Jewish Mark Twain, and when Mark Twain heard this he said "please tell him that I am the American Sholom Aleichem."

Two years ago Eugene very graciously came to visit me in Hayward and gave a colloquium on the history of electron spin and spent the day with me and my students and colleagues. It was a perfect day with my scientific grandfather, absolutely wonderful, filled with many good conversations about physics and life. I remember desperately not wanting it to end. Instead of bidding him goodbye at my office, I walked him back to his car to get just a few more minutes with him.

I feel the same way now. I wish I had a few more minutes with him."

~Derek Kimball, Professor of Physics at California State University - East Bay


"Eugene Commins was a great teacher, experimentalist, and mentor. When he lectured, it was as if you went on a little magical journey - he took your hand, showed you wonderful things, what's possible and what is not. And then brought you back and tucked you in.

In the laboratory, he was careful, soft-spoken, and gentle, and always the master at teaching-by-example. By not saying anything, he made me strive to do better every time.

I am proud to have known him and proud that he epitomizes, for me, the true physicist."

~Tuan Nguyen, The College of New Jersey Physics


"Gene was chair of the department when I was hired in 1974 and a source of support throughout my career. He was a source of wisdom who will be greatly missed by his colleagues in the Department and by the community of physicists worldwide."

~Christopher F. McKee


"Gene Commins was a gentleman and a scholar. He was a consummate teacher, an author, an artist, a musician. He had an old world sensibility that made him pursue all endeavors of a civilized life with passion and intensity. Gene was my advisor, my mentor, my role model. He was a friend and a confidante during my years in graduate school.

Gene carried his passion for physics everywhere he went and he instilled an awe in, and appreciation for, physics to generations of students. To his graduate students, he was a superb experimentalist, an exemplary mentor and a warm friend.

As befits an old world gentleman, beckoning back to a time when courtesy and dress were important, he always came to campus in a sports coat, dress shirt and tie. You would find Gene in the lab with his students, often on his knees, his coat off, his shirt sleeves rolled up, his tie gently draped over his shoulder, but never removed, helping to tighten bolts or degrease some vacuum chamber part. That was Gene. At 3:45 pm (or was it 4:15?) he would look up at the clock and say, “it’s almost tea time.” We would stop what we were doing and all go to “tea time,” a name apropos of old world style, but probably more aptly called “cookie time” for Gene. He loved his cookies more than his Lipton tea.

I remember his fountain pen that he always carried with him. Black and heavy, with gold trim. It had a real nib and a solid cap that screwed onto the body. Its vacuum black ink would soak up in lunch napkins, bleeding his sketches of an experimental idea or his calculations of some obtuse weak interaction. He went to lunch with his students because he genuinely cared about his students. And we would leave the restaurant with the wooden table strewn with napkins soaked in black ink. Hieroglyphics of a physicist’s work.

Gene’s handwritten notes were a calligraphic wonder. I always thought his handwritten notes should be studied, the letters measured, the angle of the slant calculated, and a new font created for print – something like “Commins’ Bold” sounds right to me.

During graduate school my favorite author was William Faulkner. I remember one day sitting in Gene’s office discussing a quiet little novel, not as well known, called “Light In August.” I loved Faulkner, as did Gene. Gene said, in his characteristically unassuming manner, “You know, William Faulkner spent a couple of weeks at my home when I was a boy.” No, I did not know. Then he leaned in to me and sotto voce said, “You know, he had a drinking problem.” Yes, I did know. Gene said some family member was being effusive over Faulkner’s beautiful prose. William glanced down and said, in his soft southern drawl, “Well… I try to please.” Now that is a philosophy of life that this world could surely use more of. Gene always tried to please. He treated everyone with respect and admired you for your integrity and moral fortitude, not your medals or your money.

One very late night, Gene and I were getting my experiment ready up at the LBL cyclotron. We were in a “cave” tightening some bolts; it always seems like most of experimental physics is tightening bolts. Anyway, a deafening alarm suddenly went off and we both rushed to the control room where the only other person in the building, the beam operator, was standing in front of a particularly small gauge on a wall of gauges. We all looked up at it and I remember it was labeled something like “beam flux.” The needle was pegged in the red. I said, “What does that mean?” Gene turned to me and said, “Either it’s an electronic glitch… or it means we’re all dead.” Deadpan delivery. Gene loved a good joke. After a nervous laugh by all three of us, Gene and I headed back to the cave, intent on shining some light into one of nature’s many dark corners, probing the mysteries that are weak interactions. I never did learn what happened to that small gauge on the wall.

In the fall of 1981, my first year of graduate school, I took Gene Commins’ remarkable course in graduate quantum mechanics and it left an indelible impression on me. To this day, whenever I think about quantum mechanics I hear Gene’s voice, like an echo bouncing through my thoughts, say “Gamma mu, gamma nu…” No book for the course; just Gene’s amazingly clear lectures. For my graduate work, I relied on Gene’s delightful book “Weak Interactions of Leptons and Quarks,” co-authored with Phil Bucksbaum, another former student of Gene’s. That book was always within quick reach during my graduate days. I still own that book. I looked at it last night. Its pages are a little yellow, there are notes scribbled in the margins, and the binding is barely able to support the concept of what it means to bind. It sits in my book case, in my den, three decades later.

After bouncing around the physics department for three years, I came to the decision that who I worked for was more important to me than what I worked on. There are singular moments in your life when a decision changes the entire trajectory of your life going forward. Gene Commins became my graduate advisor in the fall of 1984 and shaped my life’s arc in a profound and positive way.

Every day I walk into my laboratory to provide support to my employees, every day  I take pen to paper to try to unravel a puzzle in my experimental results, and every day I talk with my twin boys, I share the gifts he gave me so many decades ago.

Gene will be deeply missed; but he remains alive in the hearts and actions of those he touched."

~James Garnett, CEO, Uriel Solar Inc


"I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Gene Commins.

I first met Gene when I was a grad student and he was Chair of the Department.  I wanted to work with Jerry Nelson, who was then a postdoc-at-large at Lawrence Berkeley Lab (this was before Jerry started thinking about the Keck Telescope), but in order to do this, I had to find a faculty member who would serve as my formal advisor. The trouble was, I couldn't fine anyone willing to do this in the Physics Department (or Astronomy for that matter).  When I complained to Gene, he volunteered to fill this role himself, which he did with his characteristic intelligence and enthusiasm.  He had the most important quality one can have in a mentor - he really made you believe in yourself.  After my thesis work was completed, he got me a postdoctoral position at Columbia by recommending me to Bob Novick, his old boss there.

Shortly after I met Gene, he invited me to join him, Erwin Hahn, and a cellist friend to play string quartets at his house, and we spent a great many enjoyable evenings doing that over the next few years.  He was an admirable violist, despite having taken up the instrument so late in life that the conventional wisdom was that learning the instrument then should have been completely impossible.  He had a deep and abiding love of music and it was a privilege to play with him.

As a young man, Gene had known Albert Einstein, who I think may have been a family friend.

Gene would say of Einstein, "He was an absolute prince of a fellow."  I can't think of a better description of Gene himself."

~ Gary Chanan


"Gene had a remarkable rapport with his graduate students.   I am extremely fortunate to have been one of them.  I met him in his office in Birge on the day I first visited Berkeley as a prospective student in April 1975.  Our initial brief discussion was about atomic parity non-conservation, and the experiment that he had recently started with Steve Chu and Ralph Conti.  But really this was a discussion about our passion for experimental physics. I was hooked.


Five years later Gene asked me to co-author a book with him, and I found that in addition to his talents as a teacher, scientist, author and musician, Gene was also an accomplished and very demanding editor.  His father was the well-known Random House editor Saxe Commins, so perhaps Gene had inherited this talent. As I labored away under his keen eye and sharp red pencil, I learned how to communicate about science.  I'm extremely proud of the book we produced together.  I've tried to pass along to my own students some of the skill of writing, and also the joy of writing well.  It's another part of the legacy of Gene."

~Phil Bucksbaum


"Eugene Commins was my cousin. When I came to the US in 1956 I lived with Eugene. He was a great PhD. student at Columbia University and he immediately offered that I became his roommate. I lived with Eugene for nine months. What a great gentleman in the true sense of the word. He was an inspiration for me and one of the key reasons I immigrated to the US a few years later. I will miss him greatly."

~Jean-Paul Valles, PhD.

This is an email to Eugene, which was in the making, but not finished in time, to answer one of his questions.

Dear Eugene,

You have asked me several times, starting in 2002 and along the years when I was recording your graduate-course lectures, the rhetorical question (or posited as a statement) “is there anything I have taught that could not be found and learned on one’s own time in a good textbook?”   My replies asserting to the contrary did not convince you.

A recent experience provided me the way to substantiate that assertion.   This email, to convey it to you, was not finished in time.  So here it is.

In January 2015, while a lecturer at UC Berkeley, I joined the Cal Triathlon team lead by charismatic coach Dean Harper (a former triathlon star athlete).   Although, most of my life (starting with the high school track and field team), I have enjoyed the stamina derived from practicing swimming, bicycling, running and occasional competitions, training daily with the Cal-Tri team raised that experience to an entirely new level of satisfaction and proficiency.

The team spirit: group solidarity, mutual praises and encouragement; a role model: coach Harper and his assistants, who directed and metered the effort while we focused on it; the scheduled and on-time training sessions, etc,  were all crucial and necessary ingredients for the team members to achieve a deeper success.

In triathlon, training methods can also be found in good self-learning books; but athletes training on their own, except for very few and exceptional ones, will fall far short of an optimum outcome.  Coach Harper and his Cal-Tri team present yet another example that the human mind and spirit work best in a team, with a talented leader and role model: “the whole divided by the number of members in the team achieves much more than the average achieved by solitary athletes”.

Similarly with Quantum and Statistical Mechanics and Relativistic Electromagnetism, most (but not all) everything you taught can be found in good textbooks.    But, your precisely crafted courses, teaching, and homework assignments, facilitated for your students the equivalent of team-training in which you were the coach, the role model, and the guide to deeper and efficient acquisition of knowledge.

Cal professors are remarkable scientists but not all are remarkable instructors.  A subset of us, Cal students, have been fortunate to have you and a few other professors, with a dedication to, and talent at teaching.  In addition, I personally thank you for having been a mentor and a counselor starting in my first year as a graduate student, then with a reading course during the summer of 2003, later, when I was struggling as a graduate student researcher, for being a member of my dissertation committee, and finally the person, in lieu of my adviser, who hooded me at the 2012 commencement ceremony.

Eugene, on behalf of all of us who studied and learned from your courses, thank you for providing us your instructor’s talents for so many years (recognized by Cal awarding you the UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching award, once in 1963 and once more in 1979), and later, for coming out of retirement to teach yet more classes and enrich more lives.

~Eric Corsini, PhD.


"Gene Commins was a true natural philosopher.  When I worked in his lab during a memorable summer more than a decade ago, I found in him a desire to peer into the secrets of Nature so pure and noble that it reminded me of greater times. Yet it was a desire pursued with humility: he calculated and designed and interpreted the clues handed down by Nature, but he also built tools and swept the floor of his lab. His example inspired and guided me--like many others--ever since. I felt part of something great.

In the subsequent years of my doctorate, I would often go back to him to seek advice and I came to know him as a great teacher, an artist and a warm human being. But looking back, what really distinguishes him in my eyes, more than any of his scientific pursuits and artistic accomplishments, was his compassionate and kind soul. In him one felt a depth of humanity and a sense of fraternity in the face of hardship.

I count myself fortunate to have crossed his path and I will miss him very much."

~ Andrea Pasqua


"Eugene Commins was a consummate experimentalist, theorist, and teacher. I first met Gene in his Weak Interactions class, where he literally wrote the book. I still have his course notes (draft of the book), written in his clear, almost calligraphic, script. As an experimentalist Gene was always enthusiastic and hands-on, engaging in all aspects in the lab. One time I came into the lab to find Gene even sweeping the floor. While conducting his weak neutral currents experimental program with Steve Chu, Phil Bucksbaum, Larry Hunter, Persis Drell, and me, he simultaneously made theoretical computations in high-Z atoms with David Neuffer, so that our experimental results could constrain electro-weak theory. I will always be grateful for his mentor-ship and for teaching me the proper balance between theory and experiment."

~ Ralph S Conti


"I took my first course with Gene Commins as a senior physics student: it was a graduate course on stellar structure (which he studied as a "hobby").  It was beautifully clear and elegant, with a strong emphasis on analytic techniques. 

He came to class every day with his notes, opened them to the appropriate page, and then proceeded to lecture without ever consulting the notes again. I have never been able to emulate that in my own lecturing!

When I started my graduate studies, I took graduate quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics from him as well.  Again, the mathematical elegance of the subject and the physical insight is what he stressed and conveyed to his students.  He was a marvelous lecturer. 

We stayed in touch through my PhD (he was on my thesis defense) and in later years.  My dad (who taught in the chemistry department) and he had been friends since grad school, and so my dad kept me up-to-date with what Gene was doing.  We asked Gene to speak at my Dad's memorial service last March; he did a beautiful job, and it was very good to reconnect with him.  Gene's example in rigorous physics, beautiful classroom teaching, and absolute integrity is one that I have used as an inspiration for all my career."

~ Michael Strauss


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