Sad News: Peter Heller

Feb. 20, 2019 (updated Mar. 13, 2019)

Dear Colleagues,

I write to share the sad news of the passing on February 16 of Professor Emeritus Peter Heller of the department of Physics, at the age of 85. A resident of Newton, he is survived by his wife Barbara, their two children, Elsbeth and Erik, son-in-law David, and granddaughter Gabriela.

Peter attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx from kindergarten through high school, graduating in 1951. Peter entered MIT in 1951, graduating with a degree in physics in 1955 and then moved to Harvard graduating with a PhD in physics in 1963. He spent his entire career at Brandeis University. He arrived in 1965 as assistant professor of physics, was tenured in 1969, and promoted to full professor in 1974. Peter’s research focused on the study of phase transitions, in particular the study of critical phenomena and he had a great passion in developing teaching methods and laboratory demonstrations for physics education.

An interview with Peter conducted by Dr. Karl Hall of the Central European University in Budapest and Brandeis Professor Emeritus Silvan Schweber captures the essence of Peter wonderfully. Fieldston High School was established as a “haven for secular Jews who rejected the mysticism and rituals of Judaism, but accepted many of its ethical teachings.” As a child in the 1940s Peter was an amateur radio buff, building his own transmitters and receivers, learning the code and getting on the air. He was fascinated with the technical details about antennas and transmission lines and took advantage of his job shelving books in the high school library to read texts on electricity and magnetism. Peter’s high school encouraged his independent learning, but also instructed at a high level; his teacher of physics had taught Robert Oppenheimer in another generation. Already in high school, Peter had developed characteristics that would stay with him throughout his life. He was interested in physics, math and electrical engineering, loved building electronics and was always driven by the need to understand everything from scratch. Peter was very strong mathematically, but it was never sufficient for him to solve a problem solely with math; he had to understand the physics in the most basic and clear way possible. This invariably would lead him to deviate from standard textbook understanding to develop his own perspective. And he would never rest until he had constructed a conceptually clear and vivid demonstration of the physical phenomena under study.

Matter exists in different phases; water can either be solid ice, a liquid or a gas. It turns out there is a special condition in which the distinction between the liquid and gas becomes moot and water exists as a sort of hot, steamy soup in which all distinction between liquid and gas vanishes. Peter's thesis at Harvard focused on the study of this special condition, known as the critical point, which in the late 1950s was at the frontier of science. Critical points commanded attention because they show universal behavior in the sense that disparate physical systems, ranging from magnetism, liquid-liquid demixing, superconductivity, superfluidity, ferroelectrics and many other systems exhibit analogous behavior. There had to be an underlying reason why systems that lack similarities in their composition shared common features in their phase behavior. Peter with his thesis advisor, George Benedek, studied phase transitions in magnetism using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance techniques that had recently been discovered and elucidated at Harvard. Here, much of Peter’s early experience in radio technology came to bear as that technology was used in the NMR experiments. In 1962, Heller and Benedek published an important paper in Physical Review Letters demonstrating for the first time critical behavior in magnetic systems, which played a role leading to Kenneth Wilson’s 1982 Nobel prize for elucidating critical phenomena and explaining why they are universal.

Peter had a deep passion for and commitment to teaching. His demonstrations of electricity and magnetism were a pleasure to use. One which caught the imagination of many was a demonstration of the wave nature of electromagnetic radiation. Peter constructed an antenna and broadcast a powerful radio beam in the lecture hall. He built a metal panel resembling a shield that functioned as a reflector of the radiation and a detector that resembled a wand that glowed in different colors in the presence of the electric and magnetic fields, respectively. Armed with the shield and wand, Peter would march through the invisible radiation in the demo hall and physically probe the electromagnetic field. His colored lights revealing the nature of the radio waves that he had manipulated in high school provided our students a visceral feel for electromagnetic phenomena that before could only be appreciated through abstract mathematics. Peter described his approach to teaching as follows: “The essential philosophy has been to emphasize the phenomena and the theoretical approaches which get to the heart of the matter in the most ‘physical’ way, and to provide hands-on approaches to the teaching of fundamental concepts in mathematics and physics.” Not surprisingly Peter won the Louis Dembitz Brandeis Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 1991 and served as an educational consultant for organizations such as the New England Consortium for Undergraduate Science Education and the Introductory University Physics Project (sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the American Institute of Physics), and the Miami University Physics Education Project.

I thank Peter’s colleagues Seth Fraden and Bulbul Chakraborty for pulling together much of the materials for this note. Peter was a very valued member of the Brandeis community over many decades and he will be greatly missed.



Lisa M. Lynch, Provost