Myriam Sarachik, Physicist Who Plumbed Magnetism, Dies at 88

She overcame bias against women in science and personal tragedy to perform groundbreaking work. She earned recognition for her achievements last year.

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

Myriam P. Sarachik, a scientist whose groundbreaking experiments illuminated subtle but fundamental physics in the electronic and magnetic behavior of materials, died on Oct. 7 in Manhattan. She was 88.

The death, at Mount Sinai West hospital, was caused by a stroke, her daughter, Karen, said.

In the 1960s, Dr. Sarachik (pronounced SAHR-ah-chick) entered and succeeded in a field, experimental physics, where women were a rarity. Even her mentors insisted that she might really have preferred being a housewife or a part-time teacher. But she persisted, becoming a professor in 1964 at the City College of New York.

Six years later, her career was interrupted by tragedy. Dr. Sarachik came home to find her younger daughter, Leah, 5, the nanny and the family car missing. The nanny had abducted the girl, driven to Vermont and killed her before committing suicide. An intensive search that included Dr. Sarachik’s colleagues led to the discovery of Leah’s body in a trash can behind a summer house.

Dr. Sarachik began her recovery, filling her days with needlework that she displayed on the walls of her apartment. She helped her graduate students finish their degrees. She taught some classes. But she largely withdrew from physics research for more than a decade.

She returned to the laboratory in the 1980s and then began performing her leading-edge work on superconductivity and molecules that acted like magnets.

Last year, the American Physical Society awarded her the Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research for “fundamental contributions to the physics of electronic transport in solids and molecular magnetism.”

Dr. Sarachik also mentored younger women in the field and served on committees defending human rights for scientists around the world.

“She always pushed the boundaries,” said Laura H. Greene, the chief scientist at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Fla. “She was always a pioneer.”

Dr. Sarachik’s first experimental triumph came in 1963. For decades, physicists had observed some metallic materials whose electrical resistance — the amount of sluggishness in the flow of electricity through them — exhibited odd behavior.

Typically, as a metal cools, the electrons move more readily, and the resistance drops. But some metallic alloys bucked that trend. Instead, in these materials, electrical resistance below a certain temperature started rising again as they were further chilled. It was a mystery why.

A Japanese physicist, Jun Kondo, had come up with a possible explanation for the phenomenon, but it was Dr. Sarachik, working in a temporary job at Bell Labs in New Jersey, who provided the first experimental verification of what is now known as the Kondo effect, a fundamental aspect of how some metals behave. She showed that magnetism from small amounts of iron in a metal alloy could cause the electrical resistance to rise, matching Dr. Kondo’s predictions.

For years, Dr. Sarachik received little recognition for her achievement, and there was no offer to stay at Bell Labs when her position expired. She also refused an offer from Philips Research Laboratories, just north of New York City, because the company had offered her a salary thousands of dollars lower than the pay offered to men.

“I objected, placed an inquiry, and was told that the offer was in line with industrywide practice regarding women,” she recalled in an autobiographical sketch published in 2018.

City College offered her a position as an assistant professor, and she taught there until retiring in 2018 and taking emeritus status.

Image

Dr. Sarachik in 2020. Her family of Orthodox Jews escaped Nazi-occupied Belgium. In New York, she was among the first girls to attend the Bronx High School of Science. Credit…Calla Kessler for The New York Times

Myriam Paula Morgenstein was born on Aug. 8, 1933, in Antwerp, Belgium. Her father, Schloimo Morgenstein, was a diamond dealer, and her mother, Sarah (Segal) Morgenstein, was a homemaker. Orthodox Jews, they decided in 1940 to flee the Nazi threat.

Their flight included false papers, bribes, running through open fields, being seized while trying to cross into Spain, internment in a prison camp in German-occupied France and then an escape from it into Vichy France. (Decades later, she wrote, she learned that barbed wire had been erected at the camp after their escape and that by mid-1942 most of those interned there had been sent to extermination camps in Poland.)

Myriam, her parents and her two brothers made their way to Cuba and then to New York City. She was among the first girls to attend the Bronx High School of Science, which had only just gone coed, and then entered Barnard College, where she majored in physics and graduated in 1954.

She continued studying physics at Columbia University, finishing a master’s degree in 1957 and a doctorate in 1960. She then decided to give up physics and stay at home and take care of Karen, her newborn daughter.

“I was home for about a month, and I realized I was never going to survive this,” Dr. Sarachik recalled in her speech accepting the American Physical Society award. Her husband, Philip Sarachik, an electrical engineering professor at New York University whom she married in 1954, urged her to return to work.

But her job search went nowhere. In despair, she reached out to one of her Columbia professors, Polykarp Kusch.

“I asked him to please help me,” Dr. Sarachik said. “He argued with me long and hard. He said: ‘You don’t really want to do what you think you want to do. You don’t want to do research. Maybe you should take a part-time teaching job.’ And I said, ‘No, I want to do research.'”

When Dr. Sarachik insisted, Dr. Kusch arranged for her to have an interview at Bell Labs.

In the 1980s, Dr. Sarachik explored how some two-dimensional materials, generally insulators that do not conduct electricity, could turn into metallic conductors, something theorists said was impossible.

She also led experiments about the quantum behavior of molecules that act like magnets. The work demonstrated that the north and south poles of these molecules, each consisting of a couple hundred atoms, could spontaneously flip at cold temperatures where such flips were forbidden by classical physics.

Other physicists had tried to show this as well. But at the time, the materials consisting of these molecules could be made only as powders. The magnetic fields of these crystal specks pointed in random directions, and the evidence was inconclusive.

“She was not satisfied with any speculations,” said Eugene Chudnovsky, a physicist at Lehman College and the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. “I was actually telling her, ‘Myriam, you have very interesting results, you should publish them.’ And she was telling me: ‘No, let’s wait. I want to understand it better.'”

One of Dr. Sarachik’s students, Jonathan Friedman, provided a solution by mixing the powder in a liquid glue and placing the mixture in a strong magnetic field. The crystals lined up with the magnetic field and, as the glue dried, remained pointing in that direction.

That data, unambiguous, set off “an explosion of research in this area,” Dr. Chudnovsky said.

In addition to her daughter, Dr. Sarachik, who lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is survived by her husband; a brother, Henry Morgenstein; and three grandchildren.

In her 2018 autobiographical sketch, Dr. Sarachik ended with observations about fundamental scientific questions that remain, like the nature of human consciousness.

“Science is just beginning to make some progress toward understanding ‘awareness,'” she wrote. “But the real mystery is self-awareness. Why me? My self-awareness will soon be extinguished. For the moment, I’ve been having one hell of a ride!”

Leave a Reply