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By Daniel Garisto
Myriam Sarachik, a pioneering low-temperature experimentalist who overcame great personal and professional difficulties to pursue a distinguished physics career, died October 7 in Manhattan at the age of 88.
As one of few women when she entered physics, Sarachik’s work was largely overlooked until later in her life, when she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, shared the 2005 Oliver E. Buckley Prize, and was awarded the 2020 APS Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research. She was a fellow of APS and, in 2003, served as its president.
“She knew how she wanted to live her life and she followed that passion. That's inspiring—not just to me—but to so many of the other people who were in her orbit,” said Jonathan Friedman, a condensed matter physicist at Amherst College and one of Sarachik’s graduate students. “She was such a mensch.”
Myriam Paula Morgenstein was born in Antwerp, Belgium, to Sarah and Schloimo Morgenstein, in 1933. When the Nazis invaded in 1940, the Jewish family fled to Calais. The family was smuggled across the border to Spain, captured by Nazis, escaped to Vichy, France, sailed to Cuba (where they stayed for five years), and eventually ended up in Brooklyn.
“Wherever we were, Belgium, France, Spain, Cuba, all throughout our travels, Yiddish was the tongue that really bound us together,” Sarachik recalled in an oral history.
She attended the Bronx High School of Science (“full of misfits like me”) and went on to Barnard College, where she met her husband Philip Sarachik—later a professor of engineering at New York University. During her PhD at Columbia University, under a mostly-absent Richard Garwin, she found some of the first experimental evidence for the BCS theory of superconductivity.
Finding a job was “real hell,” but Sarachik managed to land at Bell Labs, where she was free to pursue her research interests. In particular, she was intrigued by a simple question: how did electrical resistance change as a function of temperature? Measuring iron samples, she observed that resistance dipped to a minimum and then rose with temperature—data inconsistent with existing models. Tipped off to her research, Jun Kondo sent her a preprint of a theory he’d been working on, which explained the effect. As the sample temperature dropped, the spin of magnetic impurities would interact more with the spin of conduction electrons, leading to more scattering and thus higher resistivity.
Though the result could reasonably have been dubbed the Sarachik-Kondo effect, her critical paper languished, garnering few citations and no recognition until late in her life. Despite the lack of acknowledgement, Sarachik became a professor at the City College of New York (CCNY) in 1964, where she would remain for the rest of her career.
“She lived inside the physical systems she worked on,” said Eugene Chudnovsky, a theoretical physicist at the City University of New York’s Lehman College. “She was moving together with electrons, scattering with them; she was living in the atoms with spin precession. This was her way of thinking.”
In 1970, Sarachik’s five-year-old daughter Leah was kidnapped and killed by her housekeeper. To cope with the unimaginable tragedy, Sarachik stayed busy, mentoring PhD students and teaching. But, she later wrote, the “curiosity, energy, drive, and excitement that had driven my earlier research were missing.”
With the ability to make precision measurements at the milliKelvin level, she began her research in earnest again. Sarachik focused on the metal-insulator transition in semiconductors, trying to figure out the mechanism behind the boundary. Working with Sergey Kravchenko in the 1990s, she also investigated the metal-insulator transition in two dimensions—then thought impossible because the random behavior of electrons would never allow for a metal phase.
“She was really an experimentalist, which means that she respected the data,” said Shiqi Li, a professor at MiraCosta College and a former graduate student under Sarachik. When good data didn’t fit the theory, Sarachik believed it was often the theory that had to go.
In the late 1990s, Sarachik and her collaborators turned their attention to the problem of macroscopic quantum tunneling of the magnetic moment. A molecule must surmount an energy barrier to flip its magnetic poles. Without that energy, at low temperatures, a molecule can only flip its poles by tunneling through the barrier. By definitively finding evidence for the phenomenon, Sarachik’s group effectively began a new subfield of condensed matter, one deeply relevant to quantum technology today.
Sarachik continued research even after she formally retired in 2018.
Beyond her scientific work, Sarachik also served on the board of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, where she helped emigree physicists. She was deeply supportive of women in physics, and made a point of hiring and accommodating mothers in her lab, Li said.
Sarachik’s kindness to others came from her own struggles—as a refugee, a mother who lost a daughter, and a woman in physics. In one memorable snub, the 2002 Europhysics Prize went just to Friedman. “I can't think of a case when somebody gets an award for a discovery they made as a graduate student and the advisor doesn't get anything,” Friedman said.
“How the community treated her is not acceptable,” said Yoko Suzuki, a former graduate student.
But eventually, belatedly, acknowledgements of her research began to pile up, culminating in the 2020 APS Medal. Asked about the honor, Sarachik quipped: “It’s very gratifying. I don't want to be an ingrate, but doing it is so much more pleasurable than being lionized for it.” And then she laughed.
The author is a freelance writer based in Bellport, New York.
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