Friday, August 21, 2009
UNM Professor Was Meticulous
By Lloyd Jojola
Journal Staff Writer
Whether teaching or undertaking research, University of New Mexico physics professor Charles Beckel was meticulous in his approach.
“Every time he would have a discussion with you, he would take notes,” said David Emin, an adjunct professor who conducted research with Beckel at New Mexico's flagship institution. “And after the discussion, he would come to see you again and say, 'Here are my notes. Do you agree with them?'”
“Not many people do this, or not any one else I've ever met does this.”
Charles L. Beckel, a UNM Department of Physics and Astronomy professor emeritus and faculty member from 1966 until his retirement in 1994, died Aug. 13. He was 81.
A memorial service will take place at 3 p.m. today at the First Unitarian Church, 3701 Carlisle NE.
When Beckel arrived at UNM, he was already as a “seasoned professor,” said Howard C. Bryant, a professor emeritus in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UNM.
Beckel, a Philadelphia native, had earned a doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1954 and came to UNM from Georgetown University.
“He was a theoretical physicist,” Bryant said. “He specialized in molecular and solid-state theory to start with and then he branched out into other things later on.”
Beckel worked in atomic, molecular, condensed matter physics and later biophysics, according to information posted by the UNM Department of Physics and Astronomy.
A 1973 newspaper article notes how Beckel had for several years been working on the molecular structure of DNA.
Emin began working with Beckel in the early 1980s.
“What we were working on was a part of a project which was primarily centered at Sandia” National Labs, Emin said. “And it was on a unique class of compounds called icosahedral boron-rich solids. These solids are composed of spheroids, little balls of boron atoms sort of like hollow balls.”
What's interesting about these materials is that they have very unique properties, Emin explained.
“Most solids don't form quite in this way and the icosahedral borides, as a result of their unique structure and their unique bonding, have very distinctive properties.
“So Charles began to work with us on studying the theory of these icosahedral borides.”
Most of the papers they produced dealt with what's called bipolaron formation, he said.
“And what that is, is that usually electrons in solids move as individual electrons and they tend to repel one another because they have like charges. But occasionally you find a situation where the electrons form little pairs, they move as two electrons together. And that's called a bipolaron.
“In some of these icosahedral borides, the carriers move as pairs and this is a very strange occurrence, and so one tries to understand why this occurs.”
Not only did Emin describe Beckel as being meticulous in his work, but he called him “ethically steadfast.”
As well, Beckel was remembered as an “excellent teacher” by Bryant, who noted that Beckel had acquired several awards for his teaching.
“He was very good with the students. He liked all levels of classes: the lower division, upper division and graduate students,” Bryant said. “He had an amazing way with students. He remembered everyone's name and face, although he had thousands of students.”
With Beckel taking an active interest in his students, a walk across campus with him became a “lengthy affair.”
“When we'd walk across campus it took forever because he knew so many students and he had been around so long he knew the parents of the students,” Emin said. “He would stop one after the other and ask them what they were doing and try to encourage them and ask them about what their parents were doing. So a 10 minute walk turned into an hour-long walk.”
Beckel served UNM in other capacities, including as acting vice president for research, assistant dean of the graduate school and on various university committees.
His civic involvements included serving as president of the Kidney Foundation of New Mexico, in which he was active in trying to support research on kidney diseases.
“He was a well-loved professor at the University of New Mexico, and we're going to miss him,” Bryant said.
Beckel's survivors include his wife of 51 years, Jo; daughter, Amanda Armstrong and her husband, Alan, and their children, Justin and Olivia; daughter, Sarah Lentz and her children, Michael and Desiree; daughter, Andrea Mitchener and her husband, David, and their children, Jacob and Emily; and son, Timothy.