The distinguished faculty member, who worked in research laboratories in France, the Soviet Union and Germany before joining USC Dornsife in 1970, co-discovered the “Maki-Thompson effect” on the transport of electrons in superconductors.
USC Dornsife quantum physicist Richard Thompson studied superconductors. (Photo: Peter Zhaoyu Zhou.)
After earning his doctorate from Harvard in 1966, physicist Richard “Dick” Thompson spent several years working in research laboratories in the Soviet Union and France. It was perhaps this experience and subsequent work in Germany that gave him a special affinity for international students who passed through the halls of USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, especially those he supervised. as director of the Department’s graduate program. of physics and astronomy.
Thompson, associate professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, joined USC Dornsife in 1970 and would become a beloved mentor, colleague and scientist in the five decades since his death this year on October 7 in the age of 83.
“Dick was caring and sincere, bringing a lot of compassion and warmth, especially to overseas graduate students who had to go through hardships to get here,” said Stephan Haas, department chair and professor of physics and astronomy at USC Dornsife. “I remember him personally picking up students from the airport and putting them up at his house until they found their own accommodation.”
Thompson, who retired in 2016, specialized in research on superconductors, materials that exhibit no electrical resistance when cooled to extremely low temperatures. Thompson focused on changes in electrical conductivity that occurred as a result of temperature fluctuations. This work led to his most well-known contribution to the field – the Maki-Thompson effect. Named after Thompson and fellow USC Dornsife physics professor Kazumi Maki, who died in 2008, the effect stems from large fluctuations in electron transport that occur in superconductors when they are close to their critical transition temperature (the temperature at which their resistance to electric currents drops to zero).
“Dick was widely recognized as an exceptionally intelligent and skilled physicist. He was the person to go to if you needed an explanation or clarification on a tricky question,” says Robin Shakeshaft, Professor of Physics and Astronomy. “I am very grateful for the help he gave me to understand some difficult topics in electromagnetism when I started teaching this subject, and for his kindness in giving me the problems and solutions he had worked out when he had taught this subject.”
Finding love, partly thanks to the KGB
Thompson’s son, Andrew, describes his father as having had a “colorful” life.
Thompson was born in Hobbs, New Mexico – “an oil boom town in the middle of nowhere”, says Andrew, adding that Thompson’s father ran a furniture store which was lucrative as it also sold dynamite and other explosives to oil prospectors.
Thompson was an excellent student and earned a full scholarship to Caltech, graduating from there in 1961. From there he went to Harvard University, earning his master’s degree in 1962 and then his doctorate.
He then landed appointments at labs in Saclay, France, and Moscow. Andrew says his father, who had a long-standing interest in Russian culture, was eager to participate in a physicist exchange program between the United States and the USSR. It was in Moscow in 1966 that Thompson met his future wife, Nina. She was teaching English at the time and wanted to leave the Soviet Union, and the couple married after a short courtship, Andrew says. Nina died in 2021.
Andrew points out that his mother’s mother was opposed to the marriage, but the KGB handlers for his father—every American physicist had one, he says—were interested in having as many private channels as possible with American scientists.
“So the KGB had a little chat with my grandmother, and they explained to her why this marriage was going to take place, and how she better shut up and not cause trouble.” Although she refused to attend the wedding, Andrew’s grandmother dropped her opposition.
A determined father
Richard Thompson (seated right) spends time with his family. (Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Thompson.)
Andrew says he grew in awe of his father’s sense of determination and dedication as he raised Andrew’s younger brother and Thompson’s only other child, Paul. Born in the mid-1970s, Paul contracted meningitis as a baby, which left him permanently deaf.
“At that time, there was very little information to help hearing people navigate raising a deaf baby,” says Andrew. “My parents had to teach themselves sign language and advocate for my brother in schools to ensure he got the education he needed. And they had to figure out how to do all this themselves. My brother prospered, and it was a direct result of my parents’ heroic efforts.
Andrew attended USC, earning a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from USC Dornsife in 1993.
Although Andrew didn’t take any of his father’s classes at USC, he knew a few people who did, including his freshman roommate. By all reports, his father ran a classroom that left no room for slacking off.
“There was a guy I knew who told me he had recurring nightmares about my dad’s homework problems, particularly one related to the forces at work on a golden cube inside ‘a void,’ says Andrew.
In addition to his sons, Andrew and Paul, Thompson is survived by his grandchildren, Colin and Connor, and his sister, Marge.