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Myer Bloom

14 March 2016

Myer Bloom died at the age of 87 on 9 February 2016 in Vancouver, Canada, where he spent most of his professional life as a physicist at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He made major and fundamental contributions to the use of solid-state NMR techniques to study gases, liquids, and solids, and most of his carrier he applied these techniques to more complex states of matter such as soaps, liquid crystals, lipid bilayers, and biological membranes. He was renowned for his capacity to combine provocative and original thinking with a high level of physical intuition and ability by bringing together concepts from many different areas of science.

Born into a Jewish family in Montreal in 1928, Bloom obtained his BSc degree from McGill University in 1949 and a PhD degree from University of Illinois in 1954 working with Charles Slichter. He then spent 1954-56 as a postdoc at the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratories in Leiden, a period that made a long-lasting influence on his special way of conducting science. From 1956 to his retirement in 1993 he was affiliated with UBC. Myer Bloom was awarded a long series of prestigious fellowships, awards, and honorary degrees.

Bloom’s first important work in Leiden was to carry out the very first NMR studies of fluid and solid H2 and HD. During that period he also performed seminal work with prof. van Kranendonk showing how nuclear spins relax in antiferromagnetic crystals. After returning to Canada to join UBC, Bloom set up a research program to study molecular solids, and he and his group managed to measure relaxation times over a broad temperature range, putting them in a position, via a theoretical analysis, to obtain information about molecular interaction potentials. They also for the first time achieved a measurement of the transitions between ortho, para, and meta nuclear spin symmetries in solid methane. Further pioneering studies involved studies of relaxation in a pure 3He gas in two and three dimensions.

Another fundamental result from his early career was the proposal and observation of the transverse Stern-Gerlach effect, a type of experiment using neutral potassium ions. Bloom developed the idea with Karl Erdman and it took five years of work before the experiment could be carried out.

In the early 1970s Myer Bloom embarked on a new research area inspired by his early work as a student with Erwin Hahn on pulsed magnetic induction in nuclear quadrupolar resonance and the then-new spin-echo techniques. Bloom realized that this provided the foundation for a novel approach to solid-state NMR studies of biological systems in which protons could be substituted by deuterons. Using these techniques Bloom, in collaboration with Ian Smith, managed to obtain the very first deuterium NMR spectrum of a biological membrane. This is possibly Myer Bloom’s most important and influential scientific contribution since it could be applied in a range of fields. The technique allowed recording of an essentially undistorted Fourier transform 2H spectrum, and research groups around the world within membrane biophysics and biochemistry have since used the technique routinely. A later refinement of the technique made it possible not only to obtain the spectrum from a powder sample but more importantly to use the powder spectrum to reconstruct the spectrum for an oriented sample (the so-called de-Paking technique), leading to direct information about acyl-chain structure and dynamics and how it is influenced by, e.g., sterols and proteins.

Based on this groundbreaking work, and fueled by a deep insight into the theoretical underpinnings of NMR techniques, Myer Bloom and his group over a period of three decades contributed substantially to our understanding of the physics of biological membranes. Among some of the more important contributions should be mentioned experimental and theoretical studies of lipid-protein interactions, a theory for the evolution of membranes, and the development of a systematic procedure to study the total NMR spectrum of whole cells which is of relevance to cancer research.

In the last part of his university career Myer Bloom established an international research program of excellence under the aegis of the Canadian Institute of Advance Research, Science of Soft Surface and Interfaces. This massively interdisciplinary program rallied leading scientists from around the globe to coordinate and inspire their research in fundamental studies of soft materials, including biological systems.

Myer Bloom was diagnosed with Parkinsons in the mid-1990s and very much in the spirit of his holistic approach to life, he started studying the science of the disease, attending seminars with medical doctors and working himself on models of dopamine transport in tissues and cells. Living with the disease became an integrated part of his life. In recent years, the physical limitations imposed by the disease made his life difficult but with his intact mental faculties he kept his strong curiosity about the world around him. During the last few years of his life he was able to complete his memoirs that were published as a book entitled Lucky Hazards: My Life in Physics, very much helped along by his sister Bernice Kastner and his good friend and earlier student, professor Walter Hardy and his wife Christina Kaiser.

The foreword to Myer Bloom’s memoirs noted: “There is much to be said about Myer Bloom’s many contributions to science, which are amply documented in the scientific literature. There is also much to be said about his mentorship of, and collaboration with, a diverse group of scientists from around the world. Many of them experienced the magic of Room 100 in the UBC Physics Department, where Myer daily discussed the various experiments and their theoretical underpinnings and interpretation to the crowd assembled around him, and the discussions often continued over lunch at the faculty club. Although many details were discussed, Myer insisted that the focus remain on what he called “the big picture,” which meant that fundamental questions in physics and ideas about evolution were considered equally important and interesting. This wide-ranging conversation about the connections between science and life was internalized by Myer Bloom’s greater scientific family from near and far, and it was closely interwoven with his own family life. Many of them felt like close members of Myer’s family, as they joined him and his wife and children at Chinese restaurants, on the ski slopes, or on hikes in the Vancouver area. For colleagues and for many of his students, Myer Bloom was a role model: his approach shows that a life in science can be a whole life, that family and the relationships between people are the salt of both life and science. It was “lucky hazards” that brought Myer Bloom into physics but he took the ball and created a wonderful legacy. His memoirs are a testament to a person who has combined being a scientist and a human being in a unique way. He is a real “mensch,” and young and old alike can learn from his story.”

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