Profile of Distinction: Herbert Kroemer

Photo of Herb Kroemer

An Interview with Herbert Kroemer
Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering, UCSB

Interviewed for the Fall 2010 ECE Current newsletter

  • UCSB Years: 1976 to present
  • Ph.D.: University of Göttingen, Germany
  • Specialty Areas: Heterostructures; General Solid-state and Device Physics; Quantum Mechanics; Photonic Crystal
  • Honors: Nobel Prize in Physics (2000) for developing semiconductor heterostructures used in high-speed- and opto-electronics; Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (2001), the highest award given by the German government; IEEE Medal of Honor (2002) for contributions to high-frequency transistors, and hot-electron devices; Member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Science

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Professor Herbert Kroemer has been a faculty member in the ECE Department since 1976. He had persuaded the department to put its resources into the emerging compound semiconductor technology, thus founding one of the leading groups in this area. He was also an early pioneer in molecular beam epitaxy. In 2000 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics “for developing semiconductor heterostructures used in high-speed- and opto-electronics.” He also received the 2002 IEEE Medal of Honor and is a member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences.

How did you become interested in the Engineering field?

This happened gradually. I’m basically a physicist. Back when I was a graduate student at the University of Göttingen, Germany, one of the theoretical physics professors decided that semiconductors were something that was interesting, and he wanted to learn more about them. He was running a weekly affair called the Seminar in Theoretical Physics. His idea about learning about semiconductors was to determine which were the key papers, give them to individual students who were participants in that seminar, and ask them to give detailed reports about them. So I ended up with a key paper by Bardeen and Brattain about Physical Principles involved in Transistor Action. This was a beautiful paper – it contained detailed descriptions of everything they understood and a few things that they didn’t understand, and I latched on to one of the things that puzzled them. And at the end of the seminar I offered a crazy hypothesis of what the explanation might be and the professor said that would be an interesting topic for a PhD dissertation. So not only had I learned semiconductor physics in that seminar, which in 1950, that was not something that people were teaching, but I got a PhD topic.

What would you say one of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the ECE department in the last 34 years?

I was working on a book with Charles Kittel at Berkeley. Charlie is a very famous person in physics. When I told him I was leaving the University of Colorado and going to UCSB he said, “I hope you know what you’re doing,” because he knew a little bit about Engineering at UCSB back in 1975. And his comments were not particularly charitable. Anyway, today nobody would ask “I hope you know what you’re doing.” It’s a startling transformation. And it’s one of the most satisfying parts for me that I was part of that transformation. It’s the most gratifying thing of them all.

Have there ever been any classes that have been your favorite to teach or be involved in?

Well I’ve taught a lot of different things and the one that always comes as a surprise to people – the one I like most – is Statistical Thermodynamics, which was what that book with Charlie Kittel was about. That’s something that I really enjoyed but also probably should admit that it ultimately really should not be part of the required curriculum for electrical engineering students. Quantum Mechanics of course has been another favorite of mine.

Any fond memories of when the compound semiconductor technology group was founded? What it was like being a founder?

Well, we were convinced it was going to be important. We were not always right about what the important parts would be, but it has become very, very important. And it was a joy putting it together, of course we needed technology. So I ended up getting a MBE system, courtesy of the Army Research Laboratory. It was wonderful fun to grow semiconductors this way.

Being a Nobel Prize winner, does it change things much?

You get a lot of invitations where you know darn well you’re being invited for decoration. Those I mostly turn down. But there is one kind of invitations where I feel I can give back to society, invitations talking to students. That’s one thing. Society has been good to me and that’s one way I can return that.

What advice would you give to the students – ones that are here and ones that are coming?

Pay more attention to fundamentals. You are embarking on a 40-year career. Halfway through your career almost everything in the way of practical applications you’ve learned will be obsolete. The fundamentals become obsolete far less rapidly and you need an obsolescence reserve. You need to be able to judge what comes; you need to be able to follow new ideas. And for that you need fundamentals.

Are you still doing research with current faculty?

Yes, it’s sort of on a program-to-program basis. For example right now, I’ve started working on a project with Art Gossard on a problem involving interfaces between nitrides and other materials.

How can alumni and faculty give back to UCSB?

Make UCSB, particularly Engineering, better known. Spread the word! Wherever they can, spread the good word. And, of course, if they are willing to give money, the more, the better.