James E. Schirber (1931-2019)

James E. Schirber (1931-2019)James E. Schirber (1931-2019)

Dr. James Emmanuel Schirber, 87, of Bozeman, Montana passed away April 28, 2019. Jim was born on June 9, 1931, in Eureka, South Dakota. He was the eldest son of Leo Edward and Adeline (Fauch) Schirber. Jim is buried at Sunset Hills Cemetery in Bozeman.

After graduating from Mobridge High School in 1949, Jim went to St. John's University in Minnesota, where he was a track star, obtaining his BS degree in 1953. Along with hunting and his Catholic faith, running remained a passion throughout his life. When attending Gordon Conferences in New Hampshire, he would spend his afternoons running mile after mile around the countryside, whereas most participants chose to play tennis, soccer, or engage in scientific discussions. He ran all the way up to his last day.

As an Air Force 1st Lieutenant, Jim trained in meteorology at MIT in 1954. He later returned to Mobridge, South Dakota, to marry Catherine Nolan on August 22, 1955. He earned his PhD in physics at Iowa State University in 1960. Clayton Swenson was his PhD supervisor whom he highly esteemed. In Jim's own words:

"In 1957 I interviewed at Physics Departments near Omaha, Nebraska, where I lived. Luckily for me, Clayton talked me into going to Iowa State University in Ames. I told him I wanted to start research, but no teaching, as I had a wife and a kid and one on the way, so I needed to finish as soon as possible. Clayton kept a straight face and said that if I signed up with him, I could start low temperature physics studies immediately. After one year it was time to choose a thesis topic. Clayton and Larry Jennings had recently discovered a new phase of solid Hg. A GOLD MINE!! I measured the transport and superconducting properties of this phase, resulting in several papers, including a PRL. Before my thesis defense the scuttlebutt was that there was a complaint that I had only been at Iowa State for three years and perhaps I should do more. Clayton was said to have said I had done enough. Thanks to Clayton I did finish my PhD in three years. I have always claimed that I only did two smart things in my life. One was marrying Cathy Nolan and the other was getting a PhD with Clayton Swenson!"

In 1962 Cathy and Jim moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Jim worked for 33 years as a research scientist at Sandia National Labs. In research his technique of choice was a He-gas high-pressure system that allowed studies at low temperature not possible in any other way. He was the foremost expert in the world with this technique, studying such diverse topics as superconductivity in α- and β-Hg, rotational dynamics in buckyballs, superconductivity in organic metals, high-Tc superconductivity, and a series of exquisite de Haas van Alphen effect studies that documented changes in the Fermi surface, and in some cases its topology, for many elements, thus allowing precise comparisons with theory. Uranium Fermiology studies to 8.8 kbar were “the hardest damn experiment I ever did” and to this day no one else has been able to better his results, though some notable scientists have tried. He always had a twinkle in his eye when he would relay that Sandia’s safety department restricted his intensifier work to 8 kilobar, but he sometimes slipped in after hours when data was taken a kilobar higher. A truly self-effacing scientist, he made a point of crediting Don Overmyer, his best technician, with the hard work that made his successes possible. Even after his retirement, he kept the infamous “shoebox” of highly prized crystals that he used throughout his career.

In his conversations with colleagues about new developments in physics, Jim's enthusiasm bubbled over. He would always have new results from his lab tucked into his well worn black briefcase that he eagerly shared with others. A gifted speaker, able to get to the heart of the matter and make clear the significance of the results to scientists of all ages, he would begin each talk with a story, sometimes a story so colorful that he often forgot to first give those in the audience who might take offense, the opportunity to leave.

One of his close friends, Zackary Fisk reminisces: "We collaborated on some thirty odd papers, a lot of fun particularly with the oxygen loaded La2CuO4 in the early high-Tc days. As you know, Jim enjoyed pheasant hunting in Iowa and his freezer in Albuquerque was loaded with them. I fancy a cooked pheasant now and then and made a regular habit of letting Jim know when I was returning from travel. He would show up to meet me at the airport with a bag full of the frozen birds. Those were different times."

When he retired in 1996, Jim and Cathy settled in the Black Hills, South Dakota. On the dirt roads around their house, he trained for several Senior Olympics and won his share of track medals. In 2015 Jim and Cathy moved to Bozeman, Montana, to be close to their daughter Mary Jane and her husband.

Jim was part of the generation of scientists who were allowed and generously supported to carry out curiosity driven research. He appreciated this gift and made a point to pass along not only his love of science, but also the beauty of understanding fundamental physics. We will miss this gentleman within our community of high pressure scientists.

(Contributed by James S. Schilling, Stanley W. Tozer)