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Obituary of Minoru Freund (1962-2012)

29 January 2013

Note to the Editor I am submitting this Obituary on behalf of Pete Worden, Director of the NASA Ames Research Center. Publication of this Obituary in the name of Dr. Worden has been approved by NASA Headquarters Friedemann Freund

In Memoriam

Minoru M. Freund died on Jan. 17, 2012, following a 2-year long battle with brain cancer. At the onset of his illness, he was the Director for Nanotechnology and Advanced Aerospace Materials and Devices at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, and a Special Assistant to the Director. He was deeply involved in fundamental research and aerospace applications, as well as working with his father on earthquake precursors and the possibility of earthquake prediction.

Mino was born on February 1, 1962, in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, son of a noted scientist, Friedemann Freund, and a novelist, Hisako Matsubara, from Japan.

Even at a very early age, Mino began to show exceptional abilities and talents. Living in Göttingen, Germany, he became fluent by the age of five in several languages and could speak, read and write surprisingly well in Japanese. Later, in Cologne, Germany, where his father was a university professor, he enrolled in a high school, where half of the curriculum was taught by native French teachers. At night Mino attended the Music Conservatory studying piano. On free afternoons he went to the Art School to learn ink drawing. Seemingly without effort his drawings soon achieved a level of perfection that attracted the attention of art collectors and dealers. But Mino's heart was with science. He double-majored in mathematics and physics and went on to the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.

At the ETH Mino eventually joined Jan Olson's low temperature solid state physics group. He came to know the IBM scientists Heini Rohrer and Gerd Binning, both Olson's former students, who were developing the Scanning Tunneling Microscope, for which they would soon receive the Nobel Prize. Mino set out to build, almost casually as part of the Advanced Physics Lab, a fully functioning STM. He built it all, the mechanical parts, stable enough to image individual atoms at a resolution of one angstrom, as well as the electronics, using intricate feedback loops to translate tiny electrical currents into images - no mean feat at that early time and a demonstration of Mino's experimental genius.

During his PhD thesis Mino worked with Alex K Müller, who had just received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the high Tc Cu-oxide based superconductors. Mino's own thesis work addressed some of the fundamental issues surrounding long-range spin coupling in these materials.

Mino arrived at UC Berkeley as a Post-doc in 1991. He was tasked with completing the construction of an ultralow temperature 3He/4He refrigerator to be used on a joint Japan-US mission in cosmology, the Infrared Telescope in Space, IRTS, to record the far infrared radiation coming to us from the most red-shifted stars at the edge of the visible universe.

After several months of trying Mino discovered that the existing design, done by a preceding Post-doc, was flawed and could not reach the sub Kelvin temperatures in the zero gravity conditions of space. The launch date for the IRTS mission was only 18 mo away. His advisor, Andrew Lange panicked.

Mino stepped up to the plate. He redesigned the refrigerator, built it new, validated its target performance, 260 mK, took it through the grueling vibration rounds at the NASA Ames Research Center, and modified it until it passed all tests. He took responsibility of all technical approvals that NASA and the Japanese Space Agency require for every piece of hardware that goes on a satellite. Needless to say, Mino's fluency in Japanese was very helpful.

Mino's 3He/4He refrigerator set a record, which held for more than a decade, of the lowest sustained temperatures achieved in space.

Carl Gibson, Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Cosmology, noted that Mino's accomplishment helped the IRTS mission provide some of the most important data at that time for cosmologists and astrophysicists.

After completion of the IRTS mission the satellite was recaptured by the Space Shuttle. It is now on exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, Ueno Park in Tokyo. The story has a bitter ending. Ambitious and aggressive, held in high regard by many nonetheless, Andrew Lange took credit for all of Mino's contributions to the IRTS mission. Sadly he ended his own life in January of 2010.

After coming back from Japan, Mino joined the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, to work on exquisitely sensitive bolometer arrays for HAWC, the High-resolution Airborne Widebandwidth Camera for SOFIA, NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, to image the sky in the far IR. According to Al Harper, the PI for HAWC, Mino's contributions came during the very early stages of the development, at a critical time. His work on device characterization was a crucial component of the development process.

Mino then went on to the AFRL in Dayton, Ohio, where he launched himself into nanotechnology and drew up the nanotechnology portfolio for the entire Air Force.

Aware of his many accomplishments, the NASA Ames Research Center was able to recruit Mino. Upon arriving back in California, Mino took nanotechnology further than anyone thought it could be taken at that time. Mino recognized its enormous potential not only in materials and space applications, but also in nanosensors and medicine, in particular in neuroscience.

While Mino was actively involved in game-changing neuroscience projects, he was diagnosed in the summer of 2009 with the most aggressive, fast-growing brain tumor.

Nevertheless, he continued to work as intensely as he could. He finished his role as COTR of the DARPA FAST program, which demonstrated a 60-fold improvement in photovoltaic power generation on the ISS bringing it from 3 W/kg to 130 W/kg today.

What made Mino so special was his deep understanding of the physics of processes on the largest scale of the universe to processes on the smallest scale in nanotechnology. He had an encyclopedic understanding of how instrumentation and all subcomponents work.

Even under most adverse conditions of his illness Mino remained creative, spinning off projects, with far reaching potential. Always close to his parents, Mino intensified his collaboration with his father on the physics underlying pre-earthquake phenomena hoping that, one day, large earthquakes will become as predictable as the weather.

Mino's personal qualities were unique. He was never encumbered by pride, envy or temper. He was always of an even disposition, always a pleasure to be with and to work with. He was a wonderful colleague and a friend. He chronicled his ongoing fight for survival in a blog, read by tens of thousands, to which he had given the ironic title "A Little Detour".

When Mino died, a small part in each of us died with him.

An International Symposium in Mino's honor was held at NASA Ames Research Center on August 10, 2012. The Proceedings will be published by Springer in 2013.

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