College of Science

Truman Black remembered as physics department pioneer

The College of Science lost a pioneering member of its physics department and a dear friend and colleague with the death of professor emeritus Truman Black on September 12 at age 74.

Dr. Black, who retired last year after 46 years with the Department of Physics, leaves a tremendous legacy. His work in experimental solid state physics and in optics, among other subjects, helped bring international attention and acclaim to the department. He played a leading role in transforming the department from one primarily involved in teaching to one which today conducts cutting-edge research and draws millions of dollars in external funding. He also played a leading role in the creation and development of the department's graduate programs.

"Truman's impact was profound. He was one of the true pioneers of our department," said Alex Weiss, physics professor and department chair. "He was a kind and giving man. He was a loving husband, father and grandfather. He was a good friend. He was a deeply influential teacher and mentor for multiple generations of students and colleagues."

A celebration of Dr. Black's life is scheduled from 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, October 27 in the Planetarium at UT Arlington. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Truman D. Black Scholarship Fund at the University of Texas at Arlington, Office of Development, Box 19198, Arlington, TX 76019-0198.

"Truman Black was a pioneer in the physics department at the University of Texas at Arlington. He was an integral part of its growth and transformation into what it is today," College of Science Dean Pamela Jansma said. "Through his intellectual leadership and commitment, his dedication to his students, his enthusiasm for collaboration, and his drive for knowledge, he embodied the spirit of the department. He will be missed."

Dr. Black's UT Arlington colleagues recall fondly his passion for learning, his fun-loving demeanor and his willingness to help and mentor young faculty and students. They also recall his well-known reputation for loaning equipment from his famously cluttered labs to others - and his persistence in seeing that the equipment was returned.

"Qualities such as amazing, unique, interesting, engaging, delightful, jovial, kind and caring were common in the responses of the UTA community to the news about Truman," said Roy Rubins, professor emeritus in physics, who came to UT Arlington in 1969 and was a frequent collaborator and close friend of Dr. Black. "Those qualities were in evidence in his 46 years on the physics faculty at UTA, undiminished over time, and not even by the health problems which clouded his later years. He was interested in everyone from university presidents to janitors, and treated all with humor and affection, always ready to engage in discussion on any topic."

Dr. Black and Rubins worked together extensively in electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) research, and later in modulated microwave spectroscopy, which they used to study elemental superconductors such as mercury and lead.

"Truman had a deep and unique understanding of physics, and was a master in experimental design, with a practical understanding of all aspects of EPR technology," Rubins said. "He had an enthusiastic desire to try out new ideas, especially if he could use something from his collection of electronic devices, which lay scattered throughout the lab. To outside observers, his lab appeared chaotic, but well-meaning students - who thought that they might tidy the lab - soon realized the apparent disorder actually enabled Truman to remember the whereabouts of every tool or piece of electronics."

Dr. Black's generosity was lauded by numerous colleagues.

"When I was a beginning assistant professor, with no experimental facilities, he let me use his labs to develop results based on which we were able to generate funding," said Robert Magnusson, a professor of electrical engineering and the Texas Instruments Distinguished University Chair in Nanoelectronics, who met Dr. Black in 1984. "No one helped me as much in getting my academic career established. I owe him a lot and will never forget it."

Suresh Sharma, a professor of physics who met Dr. Black upon coming to UT Arlington in 1976, had lab space next to Dr. Black's labs in the basement of Science Hall and also had an office next to Dr. Black for years. The pair collaborated on research and co-authored numerous publications.

"Truman was really a very unique individual," Sharma said. "He was loved by his students. He would talk to them, sometimes for hours, while sitting in the Science Hall library around what was then the largest table in that room - multi-tasking, reading stacks of mail, talking to everyone who happened to come in and drinking coffee, which he loved. His labs and office were always full with all kinds of stuff, at times even to the point of being considered unsafe. He just did not like throwing anything away.

"Truman was a good physicist and a good colleague, with a friendly and interesting personality. On one occasion, I attended a party at his house. A number of students, faculty, and friends were there, and Truman was in his full chef gear - apron, chef's hat, spatula, etc. He was cooking pizza. His hands and face were covered with flour, and it was spread everywhere in the kitchen. Some may call it a mess, but Truman was full of laughs - loud belly laughs - and having a wonderful time! He loved to surround himself with people and talk. Truman will be missed."

Interesting and amusing stories involving Dr. Black abound. Doug Coyne, who supervises the department's laboratory facilities, shared a memory of the time Dr. Black met the comedian Gallagher, who was to perform a show on campus that night.

"I walked into the physics library and Dr. Black was sitting at the long table that used to be located there," Coyne said. "Sitting beside him was Gallagher, who had developed a fascination with Chaos Theory because of his famous watermelon-smashing routine. Dr. Black spent much of the day with Gallagher, even driving him to the store to get the materials necessary to perform the trick for that night's show.
Truman Black
"Dr. Black, you will be missed. But I suspect that your spirit will ever be present down at the end of the hall in the basement, prowling around late at night and probably rumbling about where all your equipment had gone off to."

Asok Ray, a physics professor who came to UT Arlington in 1982, remembers Dr. Black as one of the driving forces behind the department's growth, including the donations and in-kind gifts of equipment Dr. Black secured from area businesses.

"When I came to the Physics Department years and years ago, Truman was one of the four or five physicists at UTA who did research," Ray said. "Our department has come a long way since then, and Truman has always been an integral part in the development of the department. Apart from inspiring generations of students in physics and science, in general, he has been instrumental in building relationships and partnerships with local industries. Without his help, the Optics Chair position would not have been possible. I will miss him as a trusted colleague and a friend."

Although he did important and influential research and was instrumental in raising the department's profile, Dr. Black's most significant contribution was to the dozens and dozens of students he mentored. They have gone on to be highly successful in both business and academia.

"I was highly impressed by his strong focus on student mentorship," said Manfred Cuntz, associate professor of physics. "Many students chose careers in physics or related fields because of his influence."

Zdzislaw Musielak, professor of physics, recalled Dr. Black's inquisitive nature.

"Truman was an amazing person - friendly, full of joy and always ready to talk about physics as well as about other topics," Musielak said. "Truman was fascinated by Einstein's contributions to physics, and Truman was in charge of activities at UTA to celebrate the World Year of Physics in 2005. Truman had a strong interest in Special and General Relativity, in the origin of both theories and their physical implications for our universe. I was fortunate to have many discussions with Truman on astrophysical and cosmological aspects of General Relativity when my office was next to his. His questions were always tough and in order to answer some of them, I had to do additional reading."

Dr. Black was born on September 30, 1937 in Houston to Burl Clifton Black and Margaret Elizabeth Black. He graduated from Milby High School in 1955 and went on to earn a B.S. in Physics from the University of Houston in 1959. He then went across town to Rice University, where he received an M.S. in 1962 and a Ph.D. in Physics in 1964. After earning his Ph.D., he went to work for Texas Instruments in Dallas for just under two years, before deciding to go into academics.

In 1965, in a bit of perfect timing, Dr. Black learned that a friend of his from Rice who was working in physics at UT Arlington was leaving, and he applied for the position. Black got the job, set up shop in Science Hall and was a fixture there for the next 46 years.

Dr. Black's research interests included laser optics, diffraction, infrared optics, surface wave analysis, super conductivity, the eye, quantum mechanics and magnetic clusters, to name just a few. He first became interested in optics and magnetism while at Rice. When he got to UT Arlington, he continued his work in optics but also began working with electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR), conducting numerous studies on the subject with Rubins.

Dr. Black established the department's High Power Laser Laboratory from a major equipment gift from Mobil Research, one of the first such facilities at the University. This facility has been used to promote research at Alcon, LTV, Lockheed Martin, Texas Instruments and UT Dallas, as well as by various UT Arlington faculty members. His Laser and Spectroscopy Lab was the first major optics facility at UT Arlington and spawned research labs across the University.

Famous for his liquid nitrogen demonstrations, his visits to area elementary schools to introduce young minds to physics educated and entertained hundreds of wide-eyed children over the years.

Dr. Black had a long and distinguished record of service to the University. As a past president of the local chapter of Sigma Xi, the honors society of research scientists and engineers, he established the Annual Symposium on Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity (SURCA) program. As chair of the University Library Committee for over 10 years, Dr. Black worked closely with the dean of the library to establish a research collection to support the University's growing graduate programs.

Dr. Black was a gifted athlete, and he enjoyed playing football, volleyball, racquetball and tennis. He also liked to work with his hands, building anything from kayaks to houses. He and his wife, Margie, loved to host parties for students and colleagues. Most of all, he enjoyed traveling the world with his wife - especially trips to Hawaii. Later in life, he devoted himself to his grandchildren.

Dr. Black was preceded in death by his parents and by a sister, Barbara Faye Black.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Marjorie; daughter, Elizabeth Drake and husband, Trey; son, Bryan Black and wife, Cindy; grandchildren, Kandi Meyers, Donnie Black, Justin Meyers, Eli Drake, Mina Drake and James Drake; brother, B.C. Black and wife, Katha; sister-in-law, Shirley Griffin and husband, Richard; and numerous cousins and nephews.

Posted October 10, 2012