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03/02/12 - Brian David Serot

Brian David Serot, professor of physics at Indiana University and a member of the Center for Exploration of Energy and Matter at Indiana University, passed away on Friday, March 2, 2012, after a long and courageous battle with cancer. 

Brian received his BS in physics from Yale University in 1975, and his PhD from Stanford in 1979.  His PhD advisor was Dirk Walecka and his thesis was on Unified Gauge Theories in Nuclear Physics.  Following a postdoctoral appointment at MIT, Brian joined the physics faculty at Stanford in 1980.  In 1984 he came to Indiana University as a member of the physics department and the Nuclear Theory Center, and he was awarded tenure in 1986.  He spent sabbatical years at the University of Washington in 1991 and at Ohio State University in 1999.

Brian, often working with Dirk Walecka, was one of the leading practitioners of “quantum hadrodynamics” (QHD).  This is a relativistic nucleon and meson quantum field theory for the nuclear many-body problem.  QHD grew out of the Walecka model of nucleons interacting with scalar and vector mesons, which was originally developed to describe dense matter in neutron stars.  The relativistic field theory formalism includes interactions and preserves causality.  This insures that the speed of sound remains less than the speed of light, even at very high densities. A monograph on QHD co-authored by Serot and Walecka has become a classic, and is the second most cited paper in the field of nuclear theory.

Early on, Brian helped show that QHD was successful at describing many properties of nuclei when applied in the mean-field approximation.  For example, relativistic effects for nucleons moving in strong scalar and vector mean fields, provide a natural explanation of the spin-orbit potential in the nuclear shell model.  Brian emphasized that QHD was a full quantum theory and contained much more than the mean field approximation.  He originally tried to calculate vacuum properties directly from the renormalizable field theory, with mixed phenomenological success.  However in the 1990s, Brian’s views of QHD changed substantially in response to developments in chiral effective field theory.  He reinterpreted QHD as an effective field theory where, in principle, an infinite number of meson-baryon couplings are present.  Brian, with Dick Furnstahl at Ohio State, and others argued that there was a natural ordering of these couplings that allowed a meaningful truncation to a small number of couplings that could be fit to reproduce experimental data.   Many graduate students have worked with Brian on applications of QHD.  Most recently Brian and his last student Xilin Zhang applied QHD to neutrino-nucleus scattering, including the excitation of nucleon resonances.

Brian graduated summa cum laude with distinction in physics from Yale and was named to Phi Beta Kappa.  He received a Chaim Weizmann postdoctoral fellowship at MIT and an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship at Stanford and Indiana University.  In 2008 he was named an Outstanding Referee in the inaugural group by the journals of the American Physical Society.  In 1991-92 he was an M.J. Murdock Fellow at the Institute for Nuclear Theory at the University of Washington.  He was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 1993 and a fellow of Sigma Xi in 1985. 

Brian was known as an outstanding teacher.  His lecture notes, handwritten in a series of different-colored inks, were famous for their detail and elegance, and they were greatly appreciated by colleagues, to whom he would freely lend them.  Brian’s problem sets were long and demanding, but he was always available to assist interested students. He won the departmental graduate student teaching award in 1985, the physics department’s award for outstanding teaching three times, and the Indiana University Trustees’ Teaching Award four times.  Brian was a deeply involved mentor with his graduate students.  Their dissertation projects were ambitious and comprehensive, and he was willing to spend as much time as was necessary to assist his students to achieve success in their work.

Brian also played a leadership role in the theoretical nuclear physics community.  He was a member of the DOE committee that reviewed proposals for a national Institute for Nuclear Theory (INT) and he played a significant role in negotiations that led to the formation of the INT at the University of Washington.  Brian subsequently served on the National Advisory Committee for the INT, and he was a co-organizer of the INT program “Mesons and Fields in Nuclei.” He served on the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee established by the DOE and NSF to establish the priorities for areas to receive nuclear physics funding.  Brian also served on the steering committee for the National Nuclear Physics Summer School, and he served a term on the editorial board of Physical Review C.   He was a member of the organizing committee for several international conferences, including the International Nuclear Physics Conference INPC 2004 and the “Intersections” conference CIPANP 2009.  He served on the program advisory committees for several laboratories and on several committees in the Nuclear Physics division of the APS. 

Brian married Rose Aleman in August, 1985.  Brian and Rose were loyal fans of Indiana University sports (both the often-brilliant basketball and the generally-dismal football teams), and they were especially fond of their birds (a cockatiel, parakeet and a pair of lovebirds). Brian devoted much time to his hobby of astronomy, and he spent many evenings observing with his telescopes.  Above all, Brian will be remembered by his friends, colleagues, and students for his brilliant mind, his encyclopedic knowledge of physics, and his calm rationality.

R.J. Furnstahl, Physics Dept, Ohio State University
C.J. Horowitz, Physics Dept, Indiana University
J.T. Londergan, Physics Dept, Indiana University
J.D. Walecka, Physics Dept, College of William & Mary