Dr. Roger W. Boom 1923-2018

by Steven Van Sciver

It is with great regret that we report the death of Dr. Roger W. Boom, emeritus professor from the University of Wisconsin and mentor and inspiration to a great many leaders in the fields of cryogenic engineering and superconductivity.
Boom’s career spanned more than 30 years, during which he was one of the pioneers in superconducting magnet technology. He was known for being extremely supportive to his students and collaborative with his colleagues.

He began work in the field while at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the early 1960s, shortly after the discovery of Nb3Sn high field superconductivity. Boom left Oak Ridge in 1963, awarded a commercial opportunity at Atomics International in Los Angeles. While there, he established a group known for many accomplishments developing superconductors for magnets, including development of some of the earliest composite superconductors using NbZr and NbTi.

Boom’s group also manufactured small superconducting magnets and researched the item’s thermal stability.

Boom left AI in 1968 to join the college of engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. While there, he almost immediately collaborated with professors Harold Peterson and Warren Young, with the goal of establishing the UW energy storage project. The project, which continued for over 25 years and was later called Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage (SMES), focused on the use of a very large superconducting magnet as a load-leveling storage device in the electric utility grid.

Boom himself became almost synonymous with SMES, as throughout his career he was a tireless proponent of the concept. He started the project at UW, established a healthy funding stream from federal and commercial agencies and collaborated with US and international organizations. Boom and his colleagues also hold almost all the organization’s patents, including one for its basic concept.

The Roger Boom group at UW–Madison, 1970-71. From left, Seated, Hoda Eyssa (dec.), Darrell Strizinger, Unknown, Sutton-Spouse (dec.), John Sutton, La Verne Boom (dec.), Roger Boom (dec.), Front kneeling, Paula McKenzie, Standing, Yehia Eyssa, Mary Remsbottom, Bob Remsbottom (dec.), Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Paul Michaelson (dec.), Boda Friend, Glen Boda, Mary Worzalla, Frank Worzalla (dec.), Laila El-Marazki, Mohamed Hilal (Dec.), Phil Sanger. Image: Rod McKenzie

The Roger Boom group at UW–Madison, 1970-71. From left, Seated, Hoda Eyssa (dec.), Darrell Strizinger, Unknown, Sutton-Spouse (dec.), John Sutton, La Verne Boom (dec.), Roger Boom (dec.), Front kneeling, Paula McKenzie, Standing, Yehia Eyssa, Mary Remsbottom, Bob Remsbottom (dec.), Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Paul Michaelson (dec.), Boda Friend, Glen Boda, Mary Worzalla, Frank Worzalla (dec.), Laila El-Marazki, Mohamed Hilal (Dec.), Phil Sanger. Image: Rod McKenzie

Boom also recognized the need to broaden research efforts at the university and, together with David Larbalestier and me, organized the UW Applied Superconductivity Center (ASC). The center fostered a wide range of research and development activities, including practical superconducting materials under the leadership of Larbalestier and helium cryogenics led by John Pfotenhauer and me. Such efforts provided for research activities that have impacted a wide range of projects, including high energy physics particle accelerators, magnetic fusion, magnetic resonance imaging and space-based instruments in addition to SMES.

Boom also gave back to the superconductivity community in numerous ways. He was a member of the CEC and ICMC boards (1975 to 1981) and chaired a joint 1979 conference in Madison. He also served on the board of the Magnet Technology Conference and organized several SMES workshops in the US and Japan. He is known for feeling strongly about fostering an interest in superconducting applications in young people. In 1992, Roger was presented with a “family tree” at his retirement party consisting of over 50 students and postdocs, many of whom are now leaders in the field of superconductivity and cryogenics.

Boom also received numerous awards for his efforts, including being named the distinguished research professor at UW –Madison in 1989, elected a fellow at IEEE and receiving the Collins Award from the Cryogenic Engineering Conference in 1993.

He was also a stalwart supporter of the Cryogenic Society of America, where he helped endow the Roger W. Boom Award that is given to promising young scientists every other year. The award exemplifies Boom’s enthusiasm for applied superconductivity and his keen interest in helping young people develop in the field. It is now known for recognizing young people for their pursuit of excellence, demonstration of high standards and clear communications. It will be awarded this year at the Applied Superconductivity Conference in Seattle.

A memorial service was planned for October 18 at the Blackhawk Country Club in Madison.


    Laurie Huget

The loss of Dr. Boom leaves a tremendous void in the cryogenic engineering and superconductivity community. His influence lives on in his students and his students’ students. He was an inspiration to us all and through his example his leadership continued well after he retired from the university. He was a modest, kind and positive man, and I personally admired him and was grateful to him for his great support for CSA’s mission.

    David Larbalestier

I first met Roger Boom in the spring of 1974 when he wrote to me saying that he would be in London at INTERMAG and that he wanted to talk to me about joining the applied superconductivity program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he was a professor of Nuclear Engineering and Metallurgy. He asked if I was interested in joining the faculty in Madison to build an academic program of superconducting materials development. I did not know—but he arranged for me to spend a month in Madison in summer 1975, saying that he was sure he could persuade me to come to Madison but that he really had to persuade my wife Karen. At the time, I was a postdoc in Martin Wilson’s group at Rutherford lab and very happy being part of Martin’s group and in living in rural England in Faringdon. But we came to Madison in August 1975 and in the fall got an offer from the Department of Metallurgical Engineering as Assistant Professor. But the offer was not immediately compelling and many months went by without a decision before Karen suggested that we have a good meal and toss a coin.

Well, we spun the coin and followed its lead—and in August 1976, we arrived in Madison with two young children, Nikolai (4) and Laura (1). Roger and his wife Laverne were gracious hosts; Bob Remsbottom loaned us his basement furniture until ours arrived.

The large applied superconductivity effort, at that time largely a SMES and fusion effort, was very collegial too. Steve Van Sciver had just arrived and Ted Hartwig, Mohamed Hilal, Yehia Eyssa, Ron Moses and many others made a core team of peers working together. In spite of all the challenges of faculty life, we stayed for 30 years because of Roger and the wonderful culture that he had generated. Roger was a very broad-minded applied physicist and a great developer of people: he made the SMES program in Madison very exciting and interdisciplinary and I have never forgotten this when I in turn took over as Director of the Applied Superconductivity Center in 1991.

Roger was a midwestern Republican from Nebraska, a great believer in education and in encouraging people to come to Madison from all over the world for their education, especially a stable of very smart Egyptians from Cairo University: Yehia Eyssa, Mohamed Hilal, Mostafa Abdelsalam; as well as Steve Van Sciver, Ted Hartwig of Texas A&M and myself. Being very Republican, when I often told him that American politics was not to my best taste, he said just become American and vote! He sponsored me and I did. I have always voted in state or federal elections! It amazes me that so few do.

In the early 1980s, after Van Sciver and I started to get our own grants, the concept of a center bigger than just SMES emerged. The Applied Superconductivity Center (ASC) was formed in 1983 and both cryogenics and superconducting materials flourished, while SMES grew into a full-fledged project. Roger retired in 1991 to San Diego to play golf, which he’d done every Wednesday in Madison. I took over as Director of ASC in 1991. Thanks to a strong enhancement of interest in high temperature superconductivity, ASC flourished. Sadly, Roger’s wife Laverne died not long after moving to La Jolla but he stayed on, although suffering from slowly increasing mental degeneration. We did talk about the move of ASC from Madison to Tallahassee in 2006 but it was a difficult conversation because of his declining memory. But he lived until he was 95, just two months ago.

Roger’s death is an appropriate time to reflect that his generous and broad-ranging DNA remains in ASC in a very productive way even today. ASC at FSU is a highly interactive center where students and postdocs are central to its effectiveness. Probably 75 PhDs have been granted for work done in ASC in Madison and Tallahassee; at least as many postdocs and sabbatical visitors have added to the diversity and breadth of ASC work. Another vital part of Roger’s legacy is the CSA Roger W. Boom award, endowed by his family, to honor scientists of achievement under 40 (cryogenicsociety.org/about_csa/awards).

Roger will be greatly missed and fondly remembered. For me his 1975 invitation to come to Madison was life-changing and I have been enormously grateful ever since.

    Steve Van Sciver

I first met Roger Boom in 1975 when I responded to an ad in Physics Today for postdocs in applications of superconductivity. I knew a few things about superconductivity through my graduate studies but had no idea of the engineering issues involved with using superconductors in magnets. I thought the job would offer me an opportunity to learn about helium cryogenics for a couple of years, but little did I know that it would lead to nearly 20 years of close collaboration and friendship with Roger. He was a great mentor of young people and I certainly benefited from his guidance. He helped me get established in so many ways, a particular example occurring shortly after I arrived at UW–Madison. At the time, Roger and Glen McIntosh had decided that it would be best to cool the energy storage magnets with He II and it was then suggested that I might want to work on He II heat transfer during my postdoc. I do not think I fully appreciated the significance of that advice at the time, but I feel very fortunate to have known and worked with Roger.

    Robert Kustom

Roger had a remarkably effervescent personality as was clearly evident in both his professional and personal life. His outgoing manner and enthusiasm were so infectious that he was easily able to attract students and collaborators from all over the US, Europe, Middle East and Asia. Many of his students, collaborators and associates went on to develop successful programs of their own, stimulated by their association with him. When we were at a conference or workshop together, a comment to him that an associate or friend had noticed there was a concert or special exhibit in town was always met with “let’s go.” Such was his enthusiasm for life.

    Glen E. McIntosh

Roger Boom was a visionary with the leadership skills to build the applied superconductivity group at the University of Wisconsin into a world-class technical organization. He started with the strong Wisconsin core—particularly Dr. Warren C. Young—and the group was soon augmented by helium expert Dr. Steve Van Sciver and superconducting materials expert Dr. David Larbalestier from England. Others followed and these staff members acted as a magnet (what else) to draw in talented international graduate students.

Boom’s original superconducting magnetic energy storage design was only modified three times after some very detailed analyses. Early on, a part-time staff member showed that moving from normal to superfluid helium would reduce the superconductor cost to more than pay for the additional refrigeration cost. I passed along the technology of pressurized superfluid gleaned from a paper presented by a French group at the 1974 International Cryogenic Engineering Conference in Kyoto, Japan. And finally, Warren Young proposed a rippled structural configuration that hugely reduced the magnet structural cost.

Roger Boom has passed, but he leaves his mark on the technology annals. His impact on the careers of many of us will last beyond our lifetimes in our own work and publications.

    John Pfotenhauer

I enjoyed the honor of working with Roger Boom from 1984 until the spring of 1993. Above all, Roger was a gracious human being. If you spent more than a few minutes talking with him, you would be introduced to the surprisingly expansive and intriguing topic of superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES) coupled with his polite, respectful and caring personality. In 1986, after working a couple years as a postdoc for Steve Van Sciver on a SMES funded project, Roger asked me to take over the responsibility for a large experimental effort, also related to SMES. The project was “large” because Roger exuded vision and consistently inspired those around him to think big and strive for excellence. Furthermore, the high-quality work produced by those around Roger flowed naturally, not out of pressure but because of the genuine enthusiasm that everyone caught from and shared with Roger regarding the exciting possibilities presented by SMES.

Roger’s enthusiasm for SMES and his kind mannerisms attracted many talented individuals to work with him and generated a significant amount of seriously good science. The abundance of activity around Roger resulted in many meetings and reports and I recall at one point he commented that it was difficult to get any meaningful work done between all the meetings. Roger also had a sign on his desk that reflected the lively activity around him: it read, “If it were not for the last minute, nothing would get done around here.”

Under Roger’s direction, the Applied Superconductivity Center drew huge respect from scientists, industries and government agencies in Wisconsin, the US in general and around the world. Roger’s infectious vision and persistent energy were certainly inspiring, but it was also his warm heart and personal touch that were enjoyed and appreciated by so many of us. I will always remember his kind remarks to me after I had made a significant blunder in the lab at one point. He said “John, it is only the people who are doing something that make mistakes.” It helped me in a large way to build a healthy perspective and to move forward in a positive way.

Toward the end of his role as a professor at UW–Madison, Roger introduced me to the “4th Tuesday of the Month Club.” The group, made up of UW–Madison faculty and scientists, had been meeting consistently since the 1930s—and still continue to meet—sharing dinner and interactively listening as one of the group presents recent results from fascinating and frequently cutting-edge research. I mention the group to highlight Roger’s gracious generosity. I have many times since then reflected on his kindness of introducing a young professor into the world of scientific giants. As was common with many other interactions, Roger caused those of us around him to think beyond ourselves and reach for grand possibilities.

    Harvey Segal

I have the highest esteem, gratitude and admiration for Roger. I made the decision to pursue a career in applied physics as I was finishing my graduate program in physics in superconductivity at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Roger hired me as a postdoc to work on the energy storage program at the university. For 2ó years I worked with Roger and the team that he assembled. Perhaps my fondest memories were when the two of us worked closely together teaching a course in applied superconductivity. He was an incomparable mentor and role model, and was always professional and good-natured.

With the experience I gained working for him and with him, and through some contacts he had, I was able to launch a career in private industry designing and building superconducting magnetic systems. That included working on a team designing and building some of the very first MRI systems. In short, my career was possible because of Roger’s decision to hire me and to help me build the foundation for a successful career. Just as important as his technical skills was his ability to act in a dignified manner at all times. He was the ideal role model.

Roger Boom shows off his “superconducting” golf putter. Image: Seung Hong

Roger Boom shows off his “superconducting” golf putter. Image: Seung Hong

    Seung Hong

In the photo at right, Professor Roger Boom demonstrated a golf-putting stroke during his retirement party at the University of Wisconsin. Roger wanted to show off the new putter that I had given to him as a retirement gift, because the putter was the first one made out of superconductors. The head of the club was made with multi-filamentary NbTi superconductor and featured a sweet spot mark on its putting face. The putter’s golden grip was made with bronze processed multi-filamentary Nb3Sn superconductor, while the shaft was made with 2219 aluminum alloy, a strengthening component of the SMES conductor designed to support the soft high purity aluminum stabilizer. While I was building this putter for Roger, I thought it summarized two of his joys very much: applied superconductivity and golf. I was delighted to learn that Roger loved this gift. Miss you, Roger!

    John G. Weisend II

Professor Boom made major contributions to the fields of cryogenics and superconductivity. By founding and leading for many years the Applied Superconductivity Center at the University of Wisconsin, Roger Boom helped put UW–Madison on the map as a center for superconductivity and cryogenics research. He helped create links between academia and industry and was always very concerned with the successful development of students. Boom’s legacy lives on in the many students who have gone on to productive careers in cryogenics and superconductivity, and it is very fitting that the CSA award for outstanding young professional is named in his honor.

    Clayton N. Whetstone

I met Roger Boom at Oak Ridge National Laboratory while I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University between 1959 and 1963. The ORNL superconductivity group came to Vanderbilt to use the high field pulsed magnet in an attempt to measure the upper critical field of Nb3Sn.
Roger was always in a good mood with his upbeat attitude and that little chuckle of his convincing us to forge ahead with our respective projects. During this period of time, Roger was the driving force behind the cooperative superconductor projects at ORNL and Vanderbilt University.

In 1963, Roger left ORNL and went to Atomics International (AI) in California, where he was the leader of the applied superconductivity group. I graduated from Vanderbilt and in 1963 Roger brought me to AI. Roger was our leader but he was also a good friend and a great guy to be around personally as well as professionally. He kept our efforts focused on ideas he thought would lead to ongoing practical applications for the applied superconductivity community in general as well as high energy physics.

Roger also directly influenced my choice of superconductivity for my thesis followed by his mentorship at AI out in the real world. His influence convinced me to form Cryomagnetics with Gordon Chase, who had joined our group to help with the metallurgy of the reactive metal alloy systems. Roger was a great guy who influenced the professional lives of both Gordon and myself. ■