UC Berkeley physics Professor Emeritus Eugene Commins dies at 83

UC Berkeley physics Professor Emeritus Eugene Commins, known for his dedication to cultivating the next generation of physicists, died because of a brief illness Sept. 26. He was 83.

During his career at UC Berkeley, Commins made remarkable strides in the field of atomic physics, according to his colleagues. Most notably, he searched for the electric dipole moment of the electron. He worked to prove that an electron had a nonzero electric dipole moment, a measurement that, if found, could greatly affect the Standard Model of particle physics.

After working as a research physicist at the Columbia Radiation Lab, Commins became a part of UC Berkeley’s physics department in 1960. On campus, Commins conducted research in atomic, molecular and optical physics, and received several acclaimed teaching awards, including UC Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award twice.

As a gesture to commemorate Commins’ contributions to the campus physics department, colleagues and former students held the “ComminsFest Symposium” in honor of his retirement in 2001. The event featured talks on topics ranging from Commins’ scientific endeavors to his personal passions.

Described as a man with an “unusual set of talents” by UC Berkeley physics professor Dmitry Budker, Commins was not only a renowned physicist but also an artist and a musician.

After the symposium, colleagues and students, including three Nobel laureates, published the conference proceedings entitled “Art and Symmetry in Experimental Physics.”

Holger Muller, a campus assistant physics professor, though not personally close with Commins observed the huge influence Commins had on his students. Muller said he worked harder promoting students and helping them in their work than anything else he did at UC Berkeley.

Budker, known as one of Commins’ “scientific children” by Muller — alongside Nobel laureate and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu — experienced firsthand just how compassionate of a teacher Commins was.

Budker attributes his education in the United States to Commins. He first met Commins in 1997 while he was still a student in Russia. The encounter allowed Budker to come to the United States to study physics, and his entire life changed, he said.

“There are many people whose life changed because of professor Commins’ personal kindness,” Budker said.

Commins affected many students’ lives through his kindness and compassion, according to several of his colleagues. Commins took the time to cultivate lasting relationships with students, and his work is living on through them and the culture he created on campus, Muller said.

“Few people of physics have that type of legacy and influence,” Muller said.

Commins is survived by his wife, Iris; his son, David; daughter-in-law, Suzanne; grandchildren Nicoletta and Luke; and his sister, Frances.

Contact Brenna Smith at [email protected].