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In Memoriam: Sheldon Schultz 1933-2017

Sheldon Schultz, UC San Diego


  • Kim McDonald

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  • Kim McDonald

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Sheldon "Shelly" Schultz, one of the founding members of the physics faculty at UC San Diego, who received world-wide acclaim for his contributions to the discovery of “metamaterials," died on January 31 at his home in La Jolla, CA. He was 84.

Born on January 21, 1933 in New York City, Schultz received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology. He joined the faculty at UC San Diego in 1960 after completing a Ph.D. thesis at Columbia University, advised by Polycarp Kusch, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1955.

Schultz arrived on the La Jolla campus as an assistant professor of physics, became a full professor in 1971 and continued as a research professor until 2013. An active and respected leader on campus, he was also the director of the university’s Center for Magnetic Recording Research from 1990 to 2000.

In 2000, Schultz, along with his postdoctoral researcher David Smith, and others in Schultz's group, created a revolutionary new class of materials now known as "metamaterials" that allows electromagnetic waves such as light to be bent and manipulated in ways not normally encountered in nature.

The breakthrough finding by Schultz's lab—which built off the work of Russian physicist Victor Veselago, who originally theorized about the properties that such a material could possess if it existed, and British physicist Sir John Pendry—was initially met with skepticism as it was contrary to the established view at the time. But skeptics were proved wrong—and the discovery was eventually named one of the “Top Ten Breakthroughs in 2003” by the journal Science.

In 2009, Thomson Reuters added Schultz to its list of potential future winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

“This was a wonderful discovery,” said Brian Maple, a distinguished professor of physics at UC San Diego and longtime colleague of Sheldon Schultz. “This particular area of research, the design of novel materials, called metamaterials, with unusual physical properties that arise from repeating patterns of ordinary substances, created a new sub-discipline within physics.”

In addition to his scientific research, Schultz was a beloved and inspirational teacher who cared deeply about each and every one of his students from undergraduates to postdoctoral fellows. His enthusiasm and dedication forged the way for many of his students to develop distinguished careers of their own. Notably, Smith, who continues working in the field of metamaterials; Dan Pinkel, who developed the comparative genomic hybridization (CGH) technique which was utilized as a method of cytogenetic analysis in the field of biology; and Donald Eigler, who became the first person to image and precisely position single atoms.

“Shelly would often challenge his graduate students to explain their research to him ‘In words of one syllable, or less!’ said Eigler, an IBM Fellow and winner of the 2010 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience who received his doctorate in physics from UC San Diego in 1984. "He would speak the words “or less!” with a special emphasis that betrayed an enthusiasm that was in many ways his signature in life. Asked to say something about him, I find myself compelled to comply with his instructions concerning the number of syllables in my words: ‘He had a great zest for life, more zest than one man needs, so he shared it with us all.’”

A highly regarded friend and colleague, Schultz maintained close relations with many of those he worked with and mentored.

In addition to his academic career, Schultz co-founded and was president of Seashell Technology LLC, which has made several important contributions in the field of nanotechnology.

He is survived by his loving wife, Carol, of 63 years; his children Mark of Los Altos, CA; Laurie Kreutz of San Diego; and David of La Jolla, as well as his grandchildren Stephanie, Elizabeth, Rachel, Kevin, Maya and Adrien.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to a Parkinson’s foundation of your choice or "The Sheldon Schultz Prize for Excellence in Graduate Student Research" in the Center for Magnetic Recording Research.

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