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In Memoriam: Kazumi Maki, 72

The award-winning physicist in USC College was a classical music aficionado who played the violin.

By Pamela J. Johnson
September 1, 2008

In Memoriam: Kazumi Maki, 72

Kazumi Maki, world-renowned physicist in the field of superconductivity, has died. He was 72.

Maki was among an elite group of Japanese physicists who during the 20th century fostered the development of physics as a science. He had been a USC College professor of physics and astronomy for 34 years.

On Sept. 10, Maki succumbed to a year-and-a-half-long battle with cancer in a West Los Angeles nursing home. Despite his diagnosis and subsequent surgery, Maki had returned to his research in early 2007.

In the summer, as always, he traveled extensively, speaking at conferences in Hungary, Croatia, Holland, Italy and Germany. About six weeks ago, he collapsed in Dresden and returned to Los Angeles, where he was treated in a hospital and nursing home until his death.

“He had no health problems whatsoever up to his diagnosis with cancer,” said Robin Shakeshaft, professor of physics and astronomy in the College, Maki’s colleague for 25 years. “I don’t recall a day he was ever sick. Not even a cold.”

Longtime colleagues remembered Maki’s exuberance and deep love and knowledge of classical music.

“Anytime you saw him walking down a corridor here at USC, he would be singing an opera,” Shakeshaft said. “Usually in German. Sometimes, he would be singing opera in German while skipping.”

Born in Takamatsu, Japan, on Jan. 27, 1936, Maki was forced to move to the countryside with his family during World War II because of a scarcity of food and the possibility of further attack. Takamatsu — where the main railway terminal and ferry port in eastern Shikoku was located — was nearly destroyed by aerial bombing during the war.

After earning his Ph.D. in physics at Kyoto University, Maki arrived in the United States in the 1960s and worked as a research associate with the famous physicist Yoichiro Nambu at the University of Chicago. He joined USC College in 1974.

Maki dedicated his life to researching superconductors, charge density wave and spin density wave systems.

Superconductors are materials that display superconductivity. For example, when metals such as mercury or lead are cooled down they become perfect conductors below a critical temperature and are found to expel magnetic fields.

Recently, Maki’s research focused on unconventional superconductors, which do not conform to the traditional BCS theory. Named after authors John Bardeen, Leon Neil Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer, BCS theory describes superconductivity as a microscopic effect caused by Bose condensation of pairs of electrons.

Among his many honors were a Fulbright Travel Grant; a Nishina Memorial Prize, given to those who have achieved exceptional results in physics; a Guggenheim fellowship; and an American Physical Society fellowship.

Over the years, he also earned a USC Associates Award for Creativity in Research and Scholarship, and an additional major international prize in physics, the John Bardeen Prize, given for theoretical work that provides significant insights on the nature of superconductivity leading to verifiable predictions.

Shakeshaft added that Maki was renowned for the speed of his thought.

“He could do calculations in his head extraordinarily quickly,” Shakeshaft said. “He was known internationally for this.”

Tu-Nan Chang, professor of physics and astronomy, had known Maki since Maki’s arrival at USC.

Chang and others noted that Maki, who spoke several languages, was so highly respected in his field that major institutions throughout the world consistently invited him to speak at conferences.

“Whenever I speak at a conference, the first thing physicists ask me when they learn I’m from USC, and this is universal, is ‘How is Kazumi Maki?’ ” Chang said. “He was probably the best known physicist of our colleagues.”

Howard Taylor, emeritus professor of chemistry and physics, who also knew Maki for decades, echoed those remarks.

“He was a world-class physicist,” Taylor said. “He was very appreciated and respected. One wouldn’t think of having a conference in his field without him there.”

Stephan Haas, professor of physics and astronomy, has been Maki’s friend and colleague for more than a decade. Haas and others recalled Maki’s devotion to classical music. Maki and his wife, Masako, were permanent fixtures at the Music Center in Los Angeles.

The couple also relished playing their own classical music. Maki played the violin and his wife, the piano. Haas said he would always remember the image of Maki walking on campus carrying his violin case, wearing clogs and bellbottom pants. Maki also was an excellent cook, mainly Italian cuisine.

“Maki loved to laugh; he loved life,” Haas said. “He was easily excitable — mostly about science. He had many passions, but science was his life.”

Maki is survived by his wife, Masako.