Noah Hershkowitz, Irving Langmuir Professor Emeritus in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Engineering Physics, died at UW Hospital on Nov. 13, 2020, at the age of 79.
Hershkowitz was born in 1941 in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in Kew Gardens, New York City, and graduated in 1958 from the High School of Music and Art, where he met Rosalyn, his future wife of 58 years.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1962, and went on to earn a PhD in physics at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. He was a professor of physics at the University of Iowa (1967-81), and a visiting professor at UCLA (1974-75) and the University of Colorado-Boulder (1980-81), before joining the UW-Madison faculty in 1981.
He began his career in nuclear physics, but soon changed to plasma physics because “it looked like it would be more fun (and it was).” Not only did he make groundbreaking contributions to his chosen field, but he gained the respect and admiration of his colleagues, both as a physicist and a human being.
Hershkowitz had a profound impact on the education, careers and lives of many undergraduate and graduate students, including more than 50 who received their PhDs. Retiring from UW-Madison in 2012, he remained active as an emeritus professor in engineering physics, continuing to collaborate on papers and to supervise students with whom he shared his love of physics.
“Physics,” he once explained, “is like a jigsaw puzzle that’s really old. All the pieces are worn down. Their edges are messed up. Some of the pieces have been put together in the wrong way. They sort of fit, but they’re not actually in the right places. The game is to put them together the right way to find out how the world works.”
Hershkowitz made a significant impact with his research, which broadened the understanding of the fundamental properties of plasma. His work covered a wide range of plasma phenomena, including low-temperature plasmas, semiconductor fabricating plasmas, fusion plasmas, and space plasmas. His groundbreaking contributions to understanding solitons, sheaths and pre-sheaths have impacted semiconductor etching, as the plasma sheath plays a major role in the linear acceleration of ions that results in the small features of modern microelectronic circuits.
His pioneering work on emissive probes resulted in the development of a new technique for determining plasma potential by analyzing emissive probe emitted current. In 2002, he was the first to measure plasma potential throughout the pre-sheath and sheath at the boundary in a weakly collisional plasma.
He chaired multiple associations and committees and was a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Vacuum Society (AVS), and the Institute of Physics (IoP UK). He was the founder and editor-in-chief for 16 years of Plasma Sources Science and Technology, now a top journal in the field, and also served as an associate editor of Physics of Fluids and Physics Review Letters.
Hershkowitz received numerous awards during his career. Among them was the James Clerk Maxwell Prize in Plasma Physics in 2004, the highest honor afforded by the APS Division of Plasma Physics (DPP), in which he was cited for his fundamental contributions to the physics of low-temperature plasmas. In 2015, he was presented with the IEEE Marie Sklodowska-Curie Award for innovative research and inspiring education in basic and applied plasma science. In 2019, he was the first recipient of the IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science Best Paper Award, for his paper, “43 years of fun basic physics experiments.”
Diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis at the age of 40, Hershkowitz never let MS slow him down. His acceptance of his disability was an inspiration to his family, friends, students and colleagues. He was a member of several disability awareness committees, including the APS Task Force on Disabilities, the Wisconsin Council on Physical Disabilities, and Access to Independence, but he also raised awareness simply by getting on with the work he loved, teaching, doing research, and traveling to conferences around the world even after he had to use a wheelchair full time. He continued to work until his final hospitalization and was a co-author on three papers presented at the APS DPP conference the day before he died.
In addition to his parents, Hershkowitz was preceded in death by his sister, Dorothy. He is survived by his wife, Rosalyn; his daughter, Elaine (Sheldon), and granddaughter, Dori, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; his daughter, Debra, of Madison, Wisconsin; and former students around the world.