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Professor Emeritus Benjamin Lax dies at 99

Pioneer in semiconductors created MIT's magnet laboratory and served as associate director of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
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Professor Emeritus Benjamin Lax
Professor Emeritus Benjamin Lax
Photo: Bacharach

Professor Emeritus Benjamin Lax of the MIT Department of Physics passed away on April 21 at the age of 99.

Born December 29, 1915, in Miskolc, Hungary, Lax came to New York City as a boy and received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Cooper Union in 1941.

During World War II, Lax enlisted in the U.S. Army, where, after completing officer candidate school and other training, he was assigned to the radar laboratory at MIT. While there, he was in charge of putting together a new radar system, dubbed “Little Abner,” for field testing. After the end of the war, he pursued a PhD degree in plasma physics at MIT, receiving his degree in 1949.

He joined the MIT Lincoln Laboratories in 1951, later becoming head of the solid-state physics division in 1958, and associate director of the laboratory in 1964.

While at Lincoln Laboratory he made major contributions to the understanding of semiconductors, particularly through studies of their energy band structure using cyclotron resonance. He was also a co-inventor on an early patent for a semiconductor laser. His pioneering work on semiconductors provided an important foundation for the development of semiconductor technology now used in computers, cell phones, and other high-technology devices.

In the late 1950s, while working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Lax led a group of scientists and engineers who proposed a high magnetic field laboratory on the MIT campus for research in solid-state physics, plasma physics, magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and engineering. The proposal was accepted, the National Magnet Laboratory (NML) was established in 1960, and Lax served as its director for its first 21 years. He also became a professor in the MIT Department of Physics.

With Lax at the helm, the NML was an international leader in a remarkably wide range of research areas including the physics of solids in high magnetic fields; high magnetic-field nuclear magnetic resonance: studies of magnetic fields of the brain; and the use of high magnetic fields for plasma physics and magnetic-confinement fusion research. The first high magnetic field tokamak confinement device, Alcator, was constructed and operated at the NML; the results obtained were a major advance in nuclear fusion research. Eventually, the research on plasma physics and fusion energy required a larger facility, leading to the establishment of the MIT Plasma Fusion Center.

Lax was also active in teaching and training PhD students. He was a mentor to many young research scientists who gained valuable experience conducting research at the NML and went on to become international leaders in the fields of solid-state and plasma physics. He retired from the directorship of the NML — by then the Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory and today the Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory — in 1981 and from the physics faculty in 1986.

Among the honors and awards that he received were the Oliver E. Buckley Prize for condensed matter physics of the American Physical Society in 1960 and election to the National Academy of Sciences. He was the author of over 300 journal articles, and co-author of a classic book on microwave ferrites and ferromagnetics.

Following his retirement from the Magnet Laboratory and the physics faculty, he stayed active in physics for more the 15 years, including being a consultant at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

Lax, who had lived in Newton, Massachusetts, was the husband of the late Blossom Cohen Lax, the father of Daniel R. Lax of Atlanta, and Robert M. Lax of Newton, and the grandfather of Rachael Lax Day.

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