Øystein Håkon Fischer founder of the NCCR MaNEP

(March 9, 1942 – September 19, 2013)

Prof. Øystein Fischer, Honorary Professor at the University of Geneva, initiator and founding Director of the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research MaNEP – Materials with novel electronic properties – dedicated to exploring electronic materials of the future, passed away on 19 September 2013 at the age of 71.

Øystein Fischer was born on March 9, 1942 in Bergen, Norway, where he went to school and grew up. His interest for science became obvious very early on, when he set up a small chemistry laboratory under the stairwell in his parents’ house to mix various smelly and exploding cocktails. His scientific career started as a technical assistant at the research laboratory of Nera A/S in Bergen, Norway. In 1962, he moved to Switzerland to study physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. There, he obtained a Diploma degree in theoretical physics in 1967, under the guidance of Prof. W. Baltensberger.

He subsequently moved to the University of Geneva to join the group of Prof. M. Peter where he obtained, in 1971, his PhD degree in experimental physics. The same year he became an assistant professor in the Department of Condensed Matter Physics at the University of Geneva. He was promoted to full professorship in the same department in 1977. With characteristic humor, and with ardent commitment to innovation, he then became one of the “galopins” (scamps) in the department, a group of young professors with novel and bright ideas formed as a counter-weight to long established colleagues in the department.

Øystein Håkon FischerØystein Fischer dedicated much of his career to studying superconductors, in an effort to understand their fundamental properties, and to develop new materials for applications. In 1975, he synthesized the first superconducting compounds (Chevrel phases) containing a regular lattice of magnetic ions (Europium) – a discovery which launched a decade of international research concerning the interaction between magnetism and superconductivity. This research culminated in 1984 with his discovery of magnetic field induced superconductivity in these same materials. This result was the first confirmed experimental evidence of the Jaccarino-Peter effect predicted in the sixties.

His scientific work took a sharp turn with the discovery of high temperature superconductivity (HTS) in the cuprates in 1986. He was on a one year visit as a Theodore H. Geballe professor at Stanford University when Bednorz and Müller made their groundbreaking discovery. Realizing its importance, Øystein travelled tirelessly between Stanford and Geneva to steer the research of his team from Chevrel phases to HTS. Airplanes became his second home. He initiated a sustained effort growing the first artificial superlattices of HTS cuprates which contributed to the now rapidly developing fields of oxide thin film heterostructures and oxide interface physics.

In 1986, Øystein Fischer introduced scanning tunnelling microscopy (STM) and scanning tunnelling spectroscopy (STS) to Geneva. The last two decades of his research mainly focused on applying this technique to studying HTS materials. He and his team succeeded in obtaining the first reproducible tunnelling spectroscopy measurements in HTS. This enabled them to observe the vortex cores and pseudo-gap in cuprate high-critical-temperature superconductors, highlighting the unexpected differences between these novel systems and classic superconductors. In 2012, Øystein Fischer was awarded the prestigious Kamerlingh Onnes prize for “leadership in magnetic superconductors and pioneering scanning tunnelling microscopy studies in cuprate high-Tc materials.”

We both met Øystein Fischer as a teacher and fantastic mentor. Today, we mourn the loss of a valued colleague and a very dear friend. He was a relentless and contagious enthusiast. Spending an hour in his office after frustrating times in the laboratory struggling with difficult experiments was the best medicine. He was a nearly inexhaustible source of ideas, and had the art of making the most unlikely of all experiments look obvious. He was certainly the expert in motivating his team for scientific projects, conference organization or big plans for new developments in Geneva.

His engagement in the community has been truly remarkable. Between 1983 and 1989, he was Vice-president of the physics section in Geneva and later President of the section for 3 years. Between 1998 and 2004, he was the Vice-dean of the Faculty of science. He has also been a member of the National Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation for many years.

In addition to his remarkable activities in research, Øystein’s relentless commitment to physics in Geneva, and condensed matter physics in Switzerland and internationally was known to all. His drive as the director of MaNEP led to a remarkable development of collaborations between scientists in industry and academia. Never short of ideas, he explored different avenues to share his passion for science. He has been the initiator of the PhysiScope – an amazing platform allowing school students of different ages to participate in a selection of scientific adventures – as a way to share enthusiasm for research, and make known to the youngest the fabulous scientific challenges that we face. He teamed up with Swiss artist Etiennne Krähenbühl to create an artwork staging superconducting levitation. Presented alongside a scientific exhibition, this sculpture has proven a unique way to reach a new public normally not attracted to science.

Committed to promoting local community development, Prof. Fischer was the initiator of the Geneva Creativity Center, which aims to stimulate exchanges between the academic and industrial sectors, and to find solutions for the most challenging technological issues modern society is facing. He was also head of the project for ‘The Centre of Astronomical, Physical and Mathematical Sciences’ in Geneva, one of the leading projects of the University of Geneva. His vision for the future, and the energy that he was able to put towards causes he championed were clearly exceptional.

Øystein Fischer was a very talented and much appreciated teacher. He trained many undergraduates, PhD students and postdocs. He received numerous awards and distinctions for his research, including ‘Doctor honoris causa’ from the University of Rennes in 1990; the Gunnar Randers Research Award in 2005; ‘Doctor honoris causa’ from the University of Neuchâtel also in 2005; and the endowed ‘Tage Erlander’ Chair from the Swedish Council for Research in 2009. He became honorary member of the Swiss Physical Society in 2010.

The involvement of Øystein Fischer, the numerous projects he launched, and the ones still to be completed are a fantastic legacy for his younger colleagues in Geneva. We will certainly continue pushing to further develop the initiatives proposed by Øystein Fischer, and to convey as much energy, passion and enthusiasm as he did.

Prof. Christoph Renner and  Prof. Jean-Marc Triscone
University of Geneva

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