Geoffrey King Walters died on 11 February 2014 after suffering from Alzheimer's. King was a leading figure in atomic, molecular, and optical physics with broad interests that ranged from rare gas optical pumping to developing novel spin-sensitive spectroscopies to probe particle-particle and particle-surface interactions.
King was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on 23 August 1931. He grew up in Houston receiving a BA in physics in 1953 from Rice University. He pursued his graduate studies at Duke University where he obtained his PhD in low temperature physics in 1956 under the direction of William Fairbank. He continued his research at Duke as an NSF Postdoctoral fellow before moving back to Texas in 1957 to work at Texas Instruments in Dallas where he headed the Low Temperature and Magnetic Resonance Branch until in October 1962 he was appointed a Corporate Research Associate and initiated research in Space Science and Engineering. He returned to Rice in 1963 as a Professor of Physics and of Space Physics and Astronomy where he remained until his retirement as Sam and Helen Worden Professor of Physics in 1999.
His research had major impact in several areas of physics. His work on helium optical pumping at Texas Instruments lead to the development of the helium magnetometer. These were flown on a number of NASA space probes and used by the US Navy as magnetic anomaly detectors. He continued his work on optical pumping at Rice developing polarized targets for nuclear scattering experiments and a polarized electron source based on a flowing helium afterglow. His work on polarized targets underpins the new advances in medical imaging using hyperpolarized rare gases. He recognized early the role that electron spin labeling techniques could play in unraveling reaction dynamics and used the flowing afterglow apparatus to explore the dynamics of Penning ionization reactions and spin exchange in collisions with open-shell targets. He investigated the interaction of polarized electrons with chiral molecules to address questions related to the origins of life. He initiated the use of electron spin labeling techniques to probe the dynamics of atom- and ion-surface interactions and to develop highly surface specific spin-sensitive probes of surface magnetism. In addition, he devised a number of novel spin-sensitive electron spectroscopies based on low energy electron diffraction and secondary electron emission that allowed the geometric, electronic, and magnetic properties of surfaces to be examined in remarkable detail. His work with spin-polarized electrons lead to the development of a new class of Mott polarimeters for measuring electron spin polarization that are today used in many laboratories world wide. In other work, he studied the gas phase reactions of excited rare gas atoms using both electron accelerators and synchrotron radiation that was central to the development of excimer lasers.
King's service to science extended far beyond the laboratory. He spent a sabbatical year working at the (then) National Bureau of Standards in Washington DC to consolidate fire safety standards. He was active in the American Physical Society serving on Council and various committees, and chaired the (then) Division of Electron and Atomic Physics. He served on numerous advisory committees and panels for the NAS/NRC. He was very active with the Research Corporation serving on their Board of Directors and on their Executive Committee as well as on the Board of Directors of Research Corporation Technologies, Inc. and the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation. His great service to Rice, which included terms as Department Chair , Acting Dean of Science and Engineering, and Dean of Natural Sciences, was recognized in 2003 by his receipt of the Gold Medal from the Association of Rice Alumni.
King enjoyed the respect of all who knew him. He had a very positive outlook on life and was always looking to the future and the new opportunities it would afford – this despite the fact that he lived for many years in a house with an underground nuclear fallout shelter that he used as an office! He was a wonderful colleague and friend, a source of wise counsel, and an excellent mentor and teacher. Faculty, staff, and students alike all miss him greatly.
F. Barry Dunning
Neal F. Lane
Ronald F. Stebbings