MIT Physics News Spotlight

George Koster, physics professor emeritus, at 85

by Sarah H. Wright
May 21, 2012

George Koster, Physics Professor Emeritus. [Photo by L. Barry Hetherington]
George Koster, Physics Professor Emeritus. [Photo by L. Barry Hetherington]

George Fred Koster, a condensed matter physicist who contributed to advances in research on semi-conductor materials and a devoted MIT educator who challenged students to demand excellence of themselves, died in his Brookline, MA, home on May 14. He was 85. 

Marc Kastner, Dean of the School of Science and Donner Professor of Science, described Koster as a "pioneer in the calculation of the behavior of electrons in solids.  Over the decades this has become one of the most important areas of physics, chemistry and materials science, and George's work is an important foundation on which much has been built."

Kastner also commended Koster’s contributions to MIT students and administration, noting he had long served as the department of physics graduate officer "with great skill and with compassion for the students.  He will be greatly missed."

Koster (SB '48, PhD '51) joined the MIT faculty in 1956, working primarily in the areas of atomic and solid state physics. In studying the electrical conductivity of solids, he contributed to the theory of hyperfine structure of atoms; band structure of crystals; ferromagnetism, and impurity states and paramagnetism in crystals. For example, Koster studied gallium arsenide (GaAs), a costly and toxic but efficient semiconductor used to make infrared light-emitting diodes, laser diodes and the kind of solar cells that robotic rovers use on Mars.

A COMMUNITY JOURNEY

A native of the Bronx, New York, Koster arrived at MIT at age sixteen and stayed for 60 years. Family and friends joke that he took "time off" to serve in the US Navy, returning to the Institute in 1946 to complete his degrees. Here, a community of creative and passionate minds challenged him as he would later challenge his own students. His dissertation advisor was Bernard T. Feld, physics professor and former director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science. Feld, an anti-nuclear weapons activist who had worked with Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi on the Manhattan Project, encouraged Koster to work as a research associate at Lincoln Laboratory and at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. Both advisor and advisee were also Guggenheim Fellows at Imperial College in London.

Koster, a theoretical physicist, collaborated with another mentor, former MIT physics department chairman John C. Slater. An expert in microwave transmission, Slater had contributed to the MIT Radiation Laboratory ("Rad Lab"); he became a co-author, with Koster, of numerous articles published in journals including Physical Review and The Journal of Applied Physics.

In 1954, Slater and Koster devised a way to approximate electronic band structure, especially for the d-bands of transition metals. (The so-called "band gap" in a solid is a major factor in determining its electrical conductivity.) Theirs is sometimes called the SK tight-binding model.

"Koster was one of the first to apply group theory to the calculation of band structures, and his book, Space Groups and Their Representations, was a standard reference for many years," said Thomas Greytak, Lester Wolfe Professor of Physics, Emeritus.

Koster’s signature course was his graduate-level solid state physics sequence, and his signature teaching style inspired some students when they became teachers.

Greytak, an experimental physicist who took Koster’s courses, recalled working on Koster’s problem sets "with a great feeling of satisfaction: not only had I solved the problems but I also understood things I knew would be of great utility to me in the future. Later, as a faculty member, I tried to pattern my problem sets on George's."

SERVING THE INSTITUTE COMMUNITY

Koster’s enthusiasm for physics was matched by his enthusiasm for the MIT community. He carried out administrative and leadership roles with diligence and good humor. He preformed exceptional service for the Department, Greytak noted, coordinating graduate admissions, counseling the graduate students and overseeing the graduate student financial support.

Ernest Moniz, professor of physics, Cecil & Ida Green Distinguished Professor, and Director of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), said Koster was "meticulous in supervising the graduate program in physics. He was also a very kind person, always constructive when students went through a rough patch."

Alicia Duarte, former course manager for MIT’s required first-year physics lecture courses, 8.01 and 8.02, said Koster’s capacity for attending to individual students was remarkable. Though Koster, course administrator at the time, oversaw 1,000 students and 26 recitation sections, he was "patient and very approachable," she said.

"His attention to detail and his knowledge of MIT rules and regulations were crucial to the success of these important courses," added Duarte, now in the Graduate Office of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Koster’s vision for consistency and excellence at MIT extended beyond his own research, teaching and administrative successes, noted his son, Karl Koster, executive director of Corporate Relations and the Industrial Liaison Program at MIT.

"My father’s loyalty to MIT is a testament to this Institute’s ability to attract and retain the highest-caliber people. He was very committed to opening the pipeline to MIT to minority students," Karl said.

Koster’s published work on diversity is contained in the 1968 report, "Minority Recruitment in Physics at MIT," for the Council of Graduate Schools in the US.

Peggy Peterson, former Graduate Administrator and Education Administrator in physics, worked with Koster for 15 years. "He treated everyone with equal respect. Egalitarianism is his legacy," she said.

"George Koster was the complete faculty member – excellent in research and teaching, dedicated to his students and colleagues, and a mentor to younger people, including myself," said Physics Department Head Edmund Bertschinger.

HIKING AND HANDBALL

Just as he insisted his students give 110 percent to every challenge in physics, Koster gave 110 percent to every challenge he encountered, from administration to athletics. A tournament-level handball player in a master’s league, Koster played regularly with MIT colleagues. Moniz, who praised Koster’s kindness with students, described him as "relentless" in handball. "We played for about ten years. He essentially always won, 21 to 17+/- 2, totally controlling the pace. While I was considerably younger, I had to keep running all over the place while he calmly controlled the center of the court," Moniz said.

Sometimes, Koster’s court was nature itself.  He took his young sons on hiking and camping trips throughout New England and on parts of the Appalachian Trial, leaving the toughest sections for himself. He completed the 270-mile Long Trail in Vermont and much of the 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail, hiking and camping alone in wilderness areas between Georgia and Maine.

In addition to Space Groups, Koster is the co-author of the reference texts, Properties of the Thirty-Two Point Groups and of Spectroscopic Coefficients for the pn, dn, and fn Configurations (both, Technology Press, 1963). Koster was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of Sigma Xi.

Koster is survived by his son Karl Koster and wife Lindley Huey of Brookline; son Paul Koster and wife Paula of Everett; and daughter Janet Raposo and husband Edward of Dedham.

A Funeral Service will be held in the Bell-O'Dea Funeral Home, 376 Washington St., Brookline, on Tuesday May 22, at 1:00 PM. Relatives and friends are kindly invited.

Visiting hours in the funeral home on Monday, May 21, from 4:00 – 7:00 p.m. Interment Walnut Hills Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, donations in memory of George may be made to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, 60 Walnut St., Wellesley Hills, MA 02481, or www.jdrf.org, would be appreciated.