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Henry Krakauer (1947–2023)

Henry Krakauer

10 August 2023

(14 February 1947 – 09 February 2023)
The condensed matter theorist developed precise simulations of electronic behavior for a variety of materials.

Henry Krakauer, professor of physics at William & Mary and an internationally recognized and widely respected computational condensed matter physicist, passed away on 9 February 2023, after living with a rare cancer for five years. He worked and taught until near the end.

Henry was born on 14 February 1947 in Regensburg, Germany, to Holocaust survivors. His parents, Mark and Sara, emigrated to the US in 1953, settling in a close-knit community of survivors in Roselle, New Jersey. Henry found a refuge from his difficult early childhood in physics, literature, and other intellectual pursuits, striving to make sense of and contribute meaningfully to a deeply troubled world.

Henry Krakauer.

Henry pursued the study of physics, earning a BA at Rutgers University (1969) and a PhD from Brandeis University (1975). Following a lectureship at West Virginia University and a postdoc at Northwestern University, Henry in 1980 joined the physics faculty at William & Mary, where he stayed for the remainder of his career.

At Northwestern and then at William & Mary, Henry devoted his research to the development of an all-electron full-potential electronic structure code based on a linear augmented plane wave approach. Over more than a decade, Henry led a series of collaborators in the development of a code package capable of accurate and efficient first-principles calculations on an extremely broad class of crystalline materials, both for low-energy ground state properties and higher-energy excitations. His 1981 paper describing the method has achieved highly cited status by accumulating thousands of citations over 40 years. Henry’s innovations, along with parallel developments at the Technical University of Vienna, were organized into a 1993 book authored by his former postdoc David Singh.

Henry’s passion for precise simulations of electronic behavior increasingly focused on ferroelectric and piezoelectric materials. In addition to posing intellectual challenges, the strong interaction between electric fields and lattice strains in these materials has enormous impact on technologies ranging from medical ultrasound to marine sonar. In collaboration with colleagues at the Naval Research Laboratory and the Carnegie Institute, Henry made a series of pathbreaking contributions to the understanding of these complex but important materials. Extending this area of study, in 2001 Henry became the founding director of the Center for Piezoelectrics by Design, an institute at William & Mary funded by the Office of Naval Research that brought together scientists from universities and laboratories around the world to advance the discovery of improved ferroelectric and piezoelectric materials.

A new phase of Henry’s research career began in the early 2000s, when in collaboration with his then William & Mary colleague Shiwei Zhang, he made seminal advances in the precise treatment of interacting electrons in realistic correlated materials. By melding Monte Carlo approaches with density-functional based techniques to go beyond lattice models, they were able to predict with unprecedented accuracy several materials properties that had been inaccessible up to that time. These auxiliary-field quantum Monte Carlo methods remain one of the leading approaches to the realistic study of correlated materials.

Henry was strongly active in support of physics and education activities. He was a beloved mentor and role model for students, postdoctoral researchers, and young faculty members, noted for his kind and gentle approach. He mentored 11 PhD students and 8 postdoctoral researchers, some becoming highly visible researchers and leaders, others following industrial or educational careers. Henry’s impact on their lives, along with his kindness, warmth, and humbleness, were noted by so many in their memory of him. Always thoughtful and the consummate professional, he served as a voice of reason and a calming influence in the department and on campus. Henry’s recognitions include fellowship in the American Physical Society, Alan Berman Research Awards from NRL, the Jesse W. Beams Research Award (SE Section of APS), and 2nd Prize in the 1990 IBM Supercomputing Competition.

Henry had a remarkably broad worldview, and he was the personification of a scholar and lifelong learner. He had a voracious reading appetite and was an avid reader of literature, having reread War and Peace several times. He took up windsurfing in his 40s and skied for the first time on his 53rd birthday.

Henry’s kindness, groundedness, insight, and broad interests enabled him to create rewarding and enduring relationships with family, friends, colleagues, students, and postdocs alike. Henry was a devoted family man and a loving husband and father. He is survived by his wife Sarah, daughter Ilana, and sons Mark and Benjamin.

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