Professor David Shoenberg

Central figure in Cambridge low-temperature physics

Of all the current Fellows of the Royal Society, only two were elected before 1953, the year of David Shoenberg's election. Schoenberg lived in Cambridge from the time that he left Latymer Upper School in London for Trinity College in 1929 until his death. From undergraduate he went on to being research student, Lecturer and Reader, and in 1973 was promoted Professor of Physics. He was 93 years old when he died, still grieved by the death of his wife Kate only seven months earlier, at the age of 97, after 63 years of happily married life.

David Shoenberg, physicist: born St Petersburg 4 January 1911; MBE 1944; University Lecturer in Physics, Cambridge University 1944-52, Reader in Physics 1952-73, Professor of Physics 1973-78 (Emeritus), Head of the Low Temperature Physics Group, Cavendish Laboratory 1973-78; Head of the Royal Society Mond Laboratory 1947-73; Corporate Official Fellow, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge 1947-73, Life Fellow 1973-2004; FRS 1953; married 1940 Kate Fischmann (died 2003; one son, two daughters); died Cambridge 10 March 2004.

Of all the current Fellows of the Royal Society, only two were elected before 1953, the year of David Shoenberg's election. Schoenberg lived in Cambridge from the time that he left Latymer Upper School in London for Trinity College in 1929 until his death. From undergraduate he went on to being research student, Lecturer and Reader, and in 1973 was promoted Professor of Physics. He was 93 years old when he died, still grieved by the death of his wife Kate only seven months earlier, at the age of 97, after 63 years of happily married life.

His last 20 years before retirement in 1978 were devoted to experiments on the peculiar magnetic properties of metals at very low temperatures. By then he and his students, together with disciples elsewhere, had extracted detailed information about the complicated dynamical behaviours of electrons in metals. From this has sprung much deeper understanding of the differences between metals, why (for example) some conduct electricity well and others not so well. Moreover, the experimental results provided much-needed data for theoreticians to compare conflicting methods of calculating the quantum-mechanics of electrons in solids. David Shoenberg must therefore be remembered as a central figure in a whole new discipline which, when he began, was in a fragmentary and almost chaotic condition.

David's father, Isaac (from 1962 Sir Isaac) Shoenberg, was a distinguished Russian-born electrical engineer. Having set up the first wireless broadcasting stations in Russia, he emigrated with his family in early 1914, becoming a British citizen in 1919 and the first research director of the new EMI. There, with remarkable foresight and courage, he built a team of electronic experts who brought television to commercial reality, encouraging the BBC to make the world's first transmission in 1936.

David Schoenberg, by now an English schoolboy, had been born in Russia. The date of birth is quoted as 4 January 1911, but Russia had not yet adopted the Gregorian calendar and by local reckoning he was born in late December 1910; not many can claim two different years of birth.

Isaac had wished his son to be a physicist and after a year of Mathematics at Cambridge David came to the same view. On graduating in 1932, he began with research in the new Royal Society Mond Laboratory in Cambridge, specially built for the Russian physicist Peter Kapitza who was, however, detained in Moscow two years later, leaving David Shoenberg effectively on his own. When the half-built helium liquefier of Kapitza's design was finished, research at very low temperatures became the laboratory's staple and Shoenberg chose the two topics which lasted him to the end of his active life, superconductivity and the de Haas-van Alphen effect.

Although superconductivity had been discovered in 1911, until 1933 it was seen only as a sudden and mysterious disappearance of electrical resistance when certain metals were cooled to within a few degrees of absolute zero. But in 1933 Walther Meissner and Robert Ochsenfeld found the even stranger property that no magnetic field could remain inside a superconductor; so Shoenberg in 1935 was entering a virtually new area of physics.

His most important work here used minute spherules of mercury made by the old pharmacist's trick of grinding the liquid metal with chalk; he could then measure the thickness of the layer, only a few hundred atoms, which was as far as a magnetic field could penetrate. These results remain canonical.

This was at the beginning of the Second World War and a six-year cessation of academic research. Just before, in 1937, Shoenberg had spent a year in Moscow during which he took up again, in a systematic way, the peculiar effect discovered in 1930 by the Dutch physicists W.J. de Haas and P.M. van Alphen (dHvA for short). When a magnetic field is applied, at very low temperatures, to a crystal of bismuth, the response of the crystal fluctuates in a regular fashion as the field is increased, and the pattern changes when the field direction is changed.

The great theorist Lev Landau provided Shoenberg with an explanation in manuscript, but in Shoenberg's account in a Russian journal all references to Landau were deleted, as he was in jail and a "non-person". For the English version published after Shoenberg's return a full account of the theory, reconstructed by Rudolf Peierls from Landau's notes, was appended and correctly attributed.

Shortly after the war, the American Jules Marcus found that dHvA was not confined to bismuth, but also occurred in zinc. From that moment, there was no stopping Shoenberg, who developed techniques for exhibiting the effect in many metals. The remarkable Norwegian-American Lars Onsager showed with great elegance how to use the results to reveal in fine detail the dynamics of the conduction electrons, and by the time Shoenberg retired in 1978, it seemed that most of the accessible properties had been revealed. A new wave of researchers, however, has further refined the technique and opened the field still wider.

Shoenberg cared for good writing and instilled in his students an appreciation of structure and clarity. As a fluent Russian-speaker, he kept the Mond Laboratory in touch with significant parallel work in Moscow at a time when the Cold War had severed personal relations between most scientists on the two sides of the Iron Curtain. His books on superconductivity ( Superconductivity, 1938) and on dHvA ( Magnetic Oscillations in Metals, 1983) have been, and remain, influential; with his many research papers, they are the memorial to an imaginative enthusiast who was always a kind and inspiring mentor.

Brian Pippard

In March 1964, writes Tam Dalyell, at the invitation of the Soviet Deputy Premier K.N. Rudnev to the Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson, a science/political delegation visited the then Soviet Union. Led by Vivian Bowden (later Lord Bowden of Chesterfield), then Principal of UMist, the group consisted of Professor Colin Adamson, electrical engineer, Professor Anthony Bradshaw of Imperial College London, David Shoenberg and myself.

On our visit to the Soviet Academy of Sciences in their elegant Moscow headquarters, we filed into the room. Those formidable Academicians M.V. Keldysh, V.A. Kirillin, M.D. Millionshikov and Peter Kapitza, although friendly, shook us formally by the hand. Shoenberg had been delayed outside in the passage by an acquaintance and entered last; he was accorded not a handshake but a huge hug in the best traditions of the Russian bear.

It spoke volumes about the Cambridge physics fraternity. In that transient moment, personal relationships conquered the Cold War. How were mutual friends in the West getting on? asked Kapitza. The following day, at Dubna, then the Russian equivalent of Cern, Shoenberg was treated with something bordering on awe by our Russian hosts, some of whom, like Shoenberg, had studied under Lev Landau.

Years later, Shoenberg invited my wife and me as his guests to a feast at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge - he was a charming host. I reminded him that, at the end of our 1964 visit, Sergei Gvishiani, Premier Alexei Kosygin's son-in-law, had arranged for us to go down a coal mine at Donetsk. "Yes," said Shoenberg, "all too easily, I might have landed up in the Donbas not Cambridge!"

I last saw Shoenberg and his marvellously supportive wife Katie on 23 June 2000, at the unveiling of his friend and former Master of Caius Neville Mott's bust in the Cavendish. His clear recall and sardonic humour were undimmed.



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