William M. Fairbank

William Fairbank (1952)

William Martin Fairbank started the experimental program of Low Temperature Physics at Duke University, and was a pioneer and one of the most creative minds in this field. Under his leadership, the Low Temperature Physics program attracted world wide attention. Fairbank was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Feb. 24, 1917. He obtained his A.B. degree from Whitman College in the State of Washington in 1939 and then enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle for graduate studies. In 1941, as the USA entered WWII, he was assigned as staff member at the MIT Radiation Laboratory.  Afterwards he continued his graduate studies at Yale University where he received his Physics PhD in 1948 under the direction of C.T. Lane, doing research on liquid helium and superconductivity at low temperatures. He then became Assistant professor at Amherst College.

Fritz London, the distinguished theorist at the Duke Physics Department, was very interested in the properties of liquid helium and in 1952, on his urging, William Fairbank was appointed an associate Physics professor at Duke University. He had been strongly recommended for this position by Walter Gordy also of the Duke Physics Department, who knew Fairbank from the time they both worked at the MIT Radiation Laboratory. A Collins helium liquefier was purchased in 1952, and Fairbank got to work setting up his laboratory.

William Fairbank and Collins Liquefier, 1952

By spring 1953, there was liquid helium available and temperatures of 1K could be reached. Fairbank attracted bright graduate students and who under his leadership investigated the properties of the isotopes of helium, (3He and 4He) in their liquid and solid phases. Among the most striking experiments were those on 1) the nuclear susceptibility of liquid 3He where the Fermi-Dirac degeneracy, predicted by F. London, was observed at temperatures below 1 K, 2) the diverging specific heat of liquid 4He at the superfluid phase transtion (lambda point) and 3) the phase separation of 3He and 4He in a liquid isotopic mixture below 1K. Fairbank also was involved with other experiments, both on liquid and solid helium and superconductors and the development of superconducting devices. Furthermore, before he left Duke in fall 1959 for a position at Stanford University, he planned several other innovative experiments, such as finding evidence for Quantized Flux in superconducting rings. Another line of research was the development of microwave cavities with a high quality factor by using superconducting materials. This last study led him to further developments at Stanford and to the revolutionary design of a linear accelerator where the particle acceleration is made via superconducting cavities. At Stanford, one of his most famous discoveries has been the flux quantization in superconducting tin. This was followed by a spectacular experiment on the free fall of the electron and the measurement of the London moment of a superconductor. At Stanford also he initiated experiments under gravity-free conditions, such as the specific heat of liquid 4He near the lambda point, directed by John Lipa , and “gravity Probe B”, an experiment, led by Francis Everitt, to test an Einstein prediction which produced results, reported first in 2007.

The complete list of publications and of graduate students both at Duke and at Stanford available here. A more detailed description of Fairbank’s research while at Duke is presented in Fritz London's legacy at Duke Universiry“. Besides his students, important members of Fairbank’s research team were Michael J. Buckingham – a theorist who collaborated on the experiment on the specific heat near the lambda point of 4He - , and Robert Romer, a professor at Amherst College who measured the nuclear magnetic relaxation time in liquid 3He during his sabbatical year at Duke in 1957.

Fairbank’s students, who had not completed their research for their PhD degree were mentored by his successor to the Duke low temperature facility, Horst Meyer, who arrived at Duke in the fall of 1959 from Harvard University. He continued Fairbank’s line of research on solid and liquid 3He and on solid hydrogen and also started experiments in new directions and attracted new graduate students and postdoctoral associates. In 1963 Henry A. Fairbank, the brother of William, a Professor of Physics at Yale University, was appointed Chairman of the Duke Physics Department, and brought with him graduate students and equipment. He continued his line of research on transport properties of liquid and solid helium.

William and Henry Fairbank

In the eighties, a former graduate student of Horst Meyer, Robert P. Behringer, joined the Duke Physics faculty and was also involved in properties of liquid helium, among them convective heat transfer. The investigations at Duke on the properties of liquid and solid helium, and of solid hydrogen, started by William Fairbank, have spanned more than fifty years, and have now come to an end with a last publication on convection in supercritical 3He in Physical Review E in 2006.

William Fairbank received many honors. Among them an honorary degree of Doctor of Science at Whitman College in 1965, Duke University in 1969 and Amherst College in 1972, the Oliver E. Buckley Prize for Solid State Physics, awarded by the American Physical Society (APS) in 1968 and the Fritz London Prize in 1968. He was also a  Fellow of the  APS, Member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1966, named “California Scientist of the Year” in 1962 by the Museum of Science and Industry in California, and he received the Research Corporation Award in 1965.

In 1941, William Fairbank married Jane Davenport, who had been a classmate during his studies at Whitman College. The marriage took place in Seattle when they both were enrolled at the University of Washington for graduate studies. They raised three boys, who in turn became very successful in their own careers. 

 William and Jane Fairbank, Back Row: from right to left: Robert, William Jr., Richard (1965)

One of them, William M. Fairbank Jr became also a physicist and is Professor at Colorado State University. The Fairbanks had a happy family life. William, a vigorous and sportive person, died of a heart attack at the age of 72 in September 1989 during his daily jogging.

He was a most enthusiastic person, who loved his family and loved doing physics. He was a dreamer, always exploring new ideas in research, and enjoyed discussing physics with colleagues in various disciplines at any place and at any time. One of the many anecdotes about him is on how he liked to share his thoughts with people: Those who were invited by Fairbank to share a room with him during conferences did not get much sleep. He had a habit of waking up his roommate during the night with : “Hey, I got a new idea for an experiment I must tell you about !” He was most  a stimulating, likable, and unforgettable person indeed. A biographical memoir, written for the National Academy of Sciences, is available online.