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Physical Sciences to Honor Late Founding Faculty Member George Feher

Oct. 2, 2018 | By Cynthia Dillon

George Feher

UC San Diego’s Office of the Dean of Physical Sciences, the Department of Physics and the International Society of Photosynthesis Research is hosting a memorial symposium in honor of George Feher, one of UC San Diego’s founding faculty members, who died last fall at age 93. Called “George Feher: Commemorating a Life in Biophysics,” the symposium will take place in the Fred Kavli Auditorium in Tata Hall, Friday, Oct. 5, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The event is free and open to public.

The symposium begins with introductions by emeriti faculty members and a morning session on bioenergetics featuring scholars from as far away as Sweden, followed by the keynote lecture, “Proton coupled electron transfer: From biology to global energy,” by Daniel Nocera (Harvard University), at 11:30 a.m. After a lunch break, session topics will include biomolecular structure, molecular spectroscopy, and frontiers in neurophysics and industrial biophysics presented by various colleagues, collaborators, and protégés of Feher’s. The memorial program will conclude with an hour-long sharing of personal remembrances of Feher.

When the esteemed former faculty member first came to what was then called in 1960 the “University of La Jolla,” he had an understanding with Roger Revelle that, initially, he would set up an experimental program in solid-state physics within the physics department and train a young faculty member (the late Sheldon Schultz) to carry on this program, and then he would go on to pursue new problems using the tools of physics in biology. The new biology beckoned, and in 1964 Feher founded the program in biological physics at UC San Diego—one of the first groups of its kind in the nation.

Feher used his skills and knowledge of spectroscopy, and newly found expertise in biochemistry, to uncover the mechanism that bacteria use to convert light into a separation of positive and negative charges, marking the first step in photosynthesis. For this work, Feher was awarded the Max Delbruck Biological Physics Prize and the Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry. He was also elected to the US National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

According to Professor of Physics David Kleinfeld, more than anything, Feher was curious about how nature worked. “He had a great gift in terms of experimental skill, a genuine esthetic about how to do interesting science, and a voracious drive. At the end of the day, George's scientific discoveries and experimental techniques have stood the test of time,” said Kleinfeld.

Before moving to La Jolla, Feher worked for several years as a member of the technical staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories and as a visiting professor at Columbia University. At Bell, motivated by the need to probe acceptor atoms in semiconductors in the then burgeoning field of solid-state physics, Feher developed a form of double-frequency spectroscopy coined “Electron Nuclear Double Resonance” (ENDOR). The name is a takeoff on the biblical Witch of Endor, as Feher’s measurements brought terror to the hearts of some theorists. He was awarded the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize for inventing ENDOR and its subsequent impact in physics and chemistry.

For more information about the George Feher Memorial Symposium, please contact Professor David Kleinfeld: dk@physics.ucsd.edu; 858-822-0342.

Physical Sciences

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Cynthia Dillon
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