Remembering Emeritus Professor Elias Burstein

On June 17, 2017, the Department of Physics and Astronomy lost one of its most distinguished members with the passing of Elias Burstein at age 99.  Eli joined the Penn faculty in 1958 and held the positions of Mary Amanda Wood Professor of Physics from 1982 and became Mary Amanda Wood Professor Emeritus following his retirement in 1988. Eli was also a founding father of the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) in 1960. The LRSM was the “first” interdisciplinary materials research laboratory at a University and continues today as the centerpiece of modern materials research at Penn.


Eli was a pioneer in the application of optical spectroscopies to the study of electronic properties of solids, particularly semiconductors.  His work on small-gap semiconductors, band-inverted semimetals and magneto-optical phenomena in solids are recognized today as breakthrough contributions in these fields.   Among his many contributions is the discovery of the Burstein-Moss effect.  The “Burstein shift” explained an anomalous doping-induced shift in the infrared absorption threshold of small-gap semiconductors towards shorter wavelength.  The Burstein shift has been subsequently identified in many systems including graphene and the modern generation of Weyl/Dirac materials and is at the core of numerous non-equilibrium optical methods.  Among the honors recognizing Eli’s work were a Guggenheim Fellowship, the John Price Wetherill Medal of the Franklin Institute, and the Frank Isakson Prize of the American Physical Society.  In 1979 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Eli was founding editor of the journal Solid State Communications and served as its Editor-in-Chief for nearly 30 years.   He was also co-editor of the series Contemporary Concepts of Condensed Matter Science. His long-time collaborations with Stig Lundqvist of Chalmers University produced the highly influential review volume Tunneling Phenomena in Solids and initiated the Frontiers Series of workshops at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste.


At Penn, Eli supervised of order 40 Ph.D. theses, established a high-field magnet lab, helped to recruit distinguished faculty, and was a mentor to countless other students, postdoctoral associates and faculty.  Together, Eli and his beloved wife Rena formed deep and personal connections to many in the Penn community, inviting students and faculty into their home or out to their summer cottage at Eagles Mere.  Illustrating the bond Eli formed with those around him, one former student recounted, “I entertained the family with my singing from the back seat of Eli’s station wagon…even the girls did not utter unkind words”.  Eli was universally cherished as a kind, gentle, and supportive colleague at Penn and in the broader scientific community. He loved fostering scientific collaboration, and famously Bob Schrieffer referred to Eli as a “creation operator for scientific meetings”.  In his later years, this affection was evident at decadal “Eli-fests”, which served as homecomings for many of his former students, postdocs and friends, and at our annual Burstein Lectures established by the LRSM. Over the years Eli (often with Rena) participated in almost all of these Burstein Lecture events, including the most recent one held this past February. Eli remained interested in scientific developments within our department even in recent months, and we will miss him dearly.