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DOE Physicists at Work
Profiles of representative DOE-sponsored physicists
doing research at universities and national laboratories
Compiled by the Office of Scientific and Technical Information
Adam Kaminski learned his earliest physics lessons the hard way. "I was notorious for taking things apart to find out how they work, and this quite often got me into trouble," says Dr. Kaminski, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Iowa State University and associate scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory.
When he was five, in his native Poland, his curiosity led to a "discovery" that led to intriguing questions. "A colleague of my mother, who was a physics teacher, showed me a steam jet engine," says Dr. Kaminski. "After the demonstration, I took it apart to look for the springs that propelled all my other mechanical toys, but, of course, could not find any." If not springs, what propelled the engine? If steam could work, what else could make it work? These questions were only the beginning of many unsolved mysteries to come.
In high school, he entered a special physics program through a partnership with the local University in Lublin, which allowed students to attend weekly lectures and use teaching laboratories. That program, along with the influence of several excellent elementary and secondary school teachers in physics and chemistry, inspired and fostered his budding desire to figure out how things work in the physical world around him.
"Our teachers often spent time after classes discussing science, or, my preference, let us conduct our own experiments using demonstration equipment," says Dr. Kaminski, who entered the University physics program to earn a Masters degree in experimental physics.
"During that time I was strongly influenced by Professor Stanislaw Halas in the Department of Physics. He not only taught me everything I know about Ultra High Vacuum, but more importantly encouraged me to develop the skills to make very precise measurements. He also gave me the opportunity to design and build my first serious piece of experimental equipment - a gas spectrometer used to determine the age of minerals."
After graduating, Dr. Kaminski found a position in the positron annihilation laboratory. But soon he was ready to leave Poland. "Due to the deteriorating conditions of science in Poland, I decided to look for opportunities in the unofficial "capital of physics" - the U.S.," says Dr. Kaminski.
In 1994 he was accepted into a graduate program in the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he enrolled in a solid-state physics class taught by James Kouvel, a teacher who quickly captured Dr. Kaminski's imagination. "I see Professor James Kouvel as my role model for an excellent teacher," says Dr. Kaminski. "It was his course that first drew my attention to the problem of superconductivity, where some materials at low temperatures conduct electricity without resistance."
Even more fascinating to Dr. Kaminski were materials that could superconduct at high temperatures. "To this date there is no satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon," says Dr. Kaminski. "It seemed like a very interesting problem."
Deploying his skills in measurement and his love for understanding how things work, Dr. Kaminski began studying, under Juan Carlos Campuzano, the electronic properties of these materials using a technique called photoemission spectroscopy. "The concept behind the technique is very simple: We shine ultra violet light on our superconduting sample, which causes photoelectrons to be emitted. This phenomenon is called photoeffect and it was first explained by Albert Einstein exactly 100 years ago. The emerging photoelectrons carry the information about the interactions between the electrons in the sample, which we can extract." Dr. Kaminski's work aims to directly probe the mechanism of high-temperature superconductivity to find out what force or forces cause the electrons to superconduct.
"Although my choice of PhD was based on the subject area, I realized that I was given a valuable opportunity to work with an exceptional experimental physicist - Professor Campuzano, and this marked the beginning of a very exciting period in my life," says Dr. Kaminski. As a graduate student he was invited to present his experimental findings at the 2000 March meeting of the American Physical Society, and upon completion of his PhD thesis in 2001, he remained as a postdoctoral researcher in Juan Carlos' group. In 2002, he was awarded a Royal Society U.S. Fellowship that allowed him to continue his research in the United Kingdom at the University of Wales, Swansea. In 2004, he accepted his current joint appointment at Ames where he continues to study high-temperature superconductivity and other fascinating properties of matter.
"In physics, we try to understand how things work," notes Dr. Kaminski. "The subject matter can be very diverse, ranging from elementary particles, to stars and galaxies. When it comes to objects in our immediate surroundings, knowing how things work may allow us to tailor their properties and create useful devices." He says that one of the most powerful examples is the transistor, which was invented by physicists studying the properties of silicon and germanium.
"Today transistors impact dramatically on our lives," says Dr. Kaminski. "A typical electronic device, such as a radio, TV, or computer, has anywhere from a few transistors to billions. What I like most about my work is that I am given an opportunity to provide the pieces of a puzzle that with time will answer the question of how high-temperature superconductivity works. I hope that this answer will affect our future as profoundly as a small device called the transistor."
Dr. Kaminski's articles accessed via OSTI: