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Michael Bretz
LSA Minutes

Michael Bretz

Michael Bretz, professor of physics, died on April 10, 2008 after a long fight with cancer. Professor Bretz was a distinguished low-temperature physicist well known for his work on quasi-two dimensional systems. Professor Bretz was born on June 2nd, 1938 in Harvey, Illinois. He grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, New York and in California. His Michigan-born grandfather, J. Harlen Bretz, was an eminent geologist.

Professor Bretz graduated from UCLA in 1961. He then spent four years at Lockheed Research Laboratories in Palo Alto, CA. His graduate studies began at San Jose State University and continued at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he received a Ph.D. in 1971 under the direction of J. G. Dash. He continued in Seattle as a postdoctoral fellow until 1973, when he became an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. He was promoted to associate professor in 1977 and to professor in 1986.

Professor Bretz’s best known work was on the physics of adsorbed films, particularly on graphite substrates. He performed extremely precise measurements of heat capacities, permitting studies of very thin adsorbed layers. He did influential experiments on phase transitions of rare gases in these conditions, which can be thought of as a direct realization of the two-dimensional Potts model, an area of considerable theoretical interest. His pioneering work on graphite preceded the explosion of activity on fullerenes, though he remained keenly interested in these developments throughout his career. He later worked on avalanches in granular materials and water droplets. His work on sound-producing (“booming”) sands included a field-trip to record the sounds, and led to an article in Scientific American.

Professor Bretz was a dedicated, sympathetic, and humane teacher; he supervised the doctoral theses of five graduate students, all of whom have had very successful scientific careers. His enthusiasm and wry humor communicated itself in his classroom teaching, and he was active in introducing new concepts into our curriculum.

His colleagues will miss Professor Bretz’s friendly presence, his dedication to science, and his boundless curiosity about the natural world. He is survived by his wife, Margaret, two children, Josh and Katie and four grandchildren. His fourth grandchild Elaine was born one week before his passing.

-- Professor Emeritus (T.) Michael Sanders , Department of Physics