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The Founding Father of JIAM

Ward Plummer (1940-2020)

July 30, 2020
Ward Plummer

Ward Plummer—the inspirational and always colorful physicist who came to UT from Penn as part of the Distinguished Scientist Program—passed away July 23 at his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He held a joint appointment at UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory from 1992 until 2009 as a Distinguished Professor at the university and a Distinguished Scientist at the national laboratory. He was the founding Director of the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His seemingly inexhaustible curiosity inspired a long scientific career punctuated by numerous grants, awards, and papers, but his mentorship was—in his opinion—the crowning achievement of his work.

Physics Professor and Department Head Hanno Weitering knew of that guidance firsthand: Plummer was his postdoctoral advisor at the University of Pennsylvania. He offered this tribute to his mentor:

"Ward was a wonderful mentor and inspirator. He also was a powerful mover and shaker and had a clear vision on where the institution needed to go. Life was never dull when Ward would push boundaries, forcing many people to step out of their comfort zones, from his undergraduate engineering students in PHYS 231 to deans, chancellors and presidents. Ward was instrumental in recruiting two UT/ORNL Distinguished Scientists: Professors Elbio Dagotto in physics and Takeshi Egami in materials science and engineering. In addition, he recruited four other condensed matter physics faculty, including Adolfo Eguiluz, Adriana Moreo, Norman Mannella, and myself (as well as Pengcheng Dai and Zhenyu Zhang, who have left us in the meantime). He was also incredibly successful in recruiting top-notch graduate students. Ward left a huge imprint on the department and broader materials community at UT and ORNL and, most importantly, on the lives and careers of his former mentees. I will always remember him as a kind-hearted person whose teachings still guide me in my professional career."

Ward Plummer was born in October 1940 and grew up in Warrenton, a small fishing and timber town near Astoria, Oregon. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and math at Lewis and Clark College in Portland before moving to Cornell University, where he completed a PhD in 1968 under the direction of Thor Rhodin. He then joined the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) as a postdoctoral fellow and after three years became Assistant Section Chief for Surface Physics. Years later he would tell The Chronicle, Lewis and Clark’s magazine, that he was "too independent and mentally playful for promotion," so he left when the bureau sent him to management school. He took with him, however, an interest in surface physics that would be a continuous thread woven through his scientific career.

Plummer moved to the University of Pennsylvania, joining the faculty in 1973. He rose to the rank of professor and served as Director of the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, home of an NSF-funded Materials Research Laboratory (currently called MRSECs). In March 1992 he was named a Visiting Distinguished Scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and in December of that year he came to UT as a Distinguished Professor of Physics through the Science Alliance program. When Professor Emeritus Tom Callcott retired from the department in 2007, he recounted that during his time as director of the Science Alliance, "Surely my finest hour was when Ward Plummer came to UT."

Plummer was a dedicated scientist with a brilliant career in surface science. He worked initially on the electronic and vibrational properties of crystalline surfaces and chemical adsorbates on metal surfaces. His interests gravitated from these "simple" model systems toward understanding emergent phenomena of very complex low-dimensional materials systems in his later career. He pioneered the use of surface science analytical tools such as field emission spectroscopy, angle-resolved photoemission and electron energy-loss spectroscopy. He discovered the multipole plasmon mode localized at the surface of a ‘simple’ metal, a finding that is currently of great interest in the field of nano plasmonics.

Plummer’s relentless drive in the pursuit of science led him to push for development of the Tennessee Advanced Materials Laboratory (TAML), which opened in 2001 as a UT Research Center of Excellence. He was a staunch advocate for the project, believing that materials—particularly in reduced dimensions—would be a major driver for science and engineering in the future. He wanted a center where tools and expertise would be available to develop networks between sub-disciplines in materials research and build a bridge connecting laboratories and applications. And he believed this center would have a responsibility to educate outstanding young scientists to carry the science forward. In 2005, with Plummer among the loudest of cheerleaders, the university and ORNL won $30M in federal and state funding to build a new building on UT’s campus, designed to foster those initiatives. It would be called the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, and it was TAML’s direct descendant.

In 2009 Plummer left UT to join Louisiana State University as part of a Multidisciplinary Hiring Initiative in Materials Science and Engineering. He joined the physics department as the Boyd Professor and was also special assistant to the Vice Chancellor of Research. There, he helped build collaborative research and education programs between the US and international partners, which led to the creation of a dual degree program between LSU and the Institute of Physics in Beijing, China. In 2017, he was awarded the International Science and Technology Cooperation Award of the People’s Republic of China. At 79, he was still working.

Over the course of his career, Plummer served on numerous review teams, advisory committees, and editorial boards. He wrote more than 420 refereed papers and had a long list of honors, including: the W. Nottingham Award; the Davisson-Germer Prize in Atomic and Surface physics of the American Physical Society; the Humboldt Senior Scientist Award; the Medard V. Welch Award from the American Vacuum Society; and election as a Fellow of the AVS as well as the American Physical Society. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was listed as one of the 1,000 Most Cited Physicists from 1981-1997 and among his papers are one of the top 100 papers published by NIST in the 20th Century. In 2007, Lewis and Clark honored him with the Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Plummer was particularly proud of the Nottingham Prize because it spoke to a deeper motivation of his science. He won the honor in 1968 as a graduate student. Two of his UT students (John Pierce and Joseph Carpinelli) would go on to win it as well. Plummer was quick to consider any untraveled avenue in surface physics and encouraged his students and postdocs to share their ideas. He was fond of saying that his legacy would not be the papers he published or the prizes he won, but the young scientists he guided along the way. Over his five decades as a physicist, more than 100 students and postdocs would call him their mentor. With their successes, his work lives on.

There will be no service or memorial at this time due to the pandemic. Image courtesy of Louisiana State University/photo credit: LSU Senior Photographer Eddy Perez.

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