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Faces of Penn State, 2002: Gerald Mahan

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Distinguished Professor of Physics

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In his first year at Penn State, theoretical physicist Gerald Mahan has discovered many collaborative opportunities, confirming the university's reputation as a leader in interdisciplinary cooperation.

Years at Penn State: 1, as of 2002

Professional background: Penn State (2001-present, distinguished professor); University of Tennessee (1984-2001, distinguished professor); Oak Ridge National Laboratory (1984-2001, distinguished scientist); Indiana University (1973-1984, distinguished professor / professor); University of Oregon (1967-1973, associate professor / assistant professor); General Electric (1964-1967, research physicist)

Academic background: Doctoral degree in theoretical physics, University of California at Berkeley (1964); Bachelor’s degree in physics, Harvard College (1959)

Fall 2002—When Gerald Mahan moved from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to State College last year, he thought he was just getting a new job. In addition, he has acquired new challenges and a new hobby.

A theoretical physicist with a specialty in condensed-matter physics, Mahan has wide interests. He has published research papers on gases, liquids, and solids; on abstract topics involving many-electron phenomena; as well as on practical devices such as solid-state refrigerators and fuses made from zinc oxide (varistors).

Initially, Mahan worked with John Badding of Penn State’s Department of Chemistry, striving to develop new materials and new methods of making refrigerators with no moving parts. Since then, he also has branched off into other directions.

“I’ve gotten more involved with the experimental program at Penn State on carbon nanotubes and also with the nanowires of silicon that are being produced and measured in the laboratory of Professor Peter Eklund,” he said.

Mahan said he’s also working with a few other groups and would like to explore collaborations with the Materials Research Laboratory. Mahan’s experiences serve to confirm a recent University contention that Penn State is in the forefront of an academic movement toward interdepartmental and interdisciplinary cooperation.

“Penn State has more interdepartmental collaboration than most universities,” Mahan says.

That spirit of friendship and cooperation has extended to his personal life, which also has changed since his move to Penn State.

Previously, Mahan says, “On Saturdays I used to be down in my wood shop making sawdust. Occasionally, I would finish a piece of furniture. My wife and I also used to take day hikes.”

But since the Mahans have been living in an apartment while they are building a house at Penn State, “making sawdust” has been put on hold. However, they have been able to continue their hikes by exploring Centre County’s intricate web of hiking trails.

In place of engaging his hands in woodworking, Mahan has found another use for his feet—dancing. He and his wife joined a ballroom dancing club in State College and attend monthly dinner dances.

It’s during these and other times away from his work that Mahan says he finds inspiration. “I get my best ideas when I step back from work a little bit,” he says. “It’s remarkable how some of by best ideas come at about five o’clock in the morning.”

No matter where or when the inspiration, Mahan has found lots of it at Penn State and is glad he was motivated to become a Penn Stater.

“When I came here, I was hoping certain things would work. And they have. I’m very happy I made the move here,” Mahan says. “Also, good things have happened that I hadn’t expected. There are a lot of good people here.”

Andy Elder

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