Physics Professor James Langer, who has taught and researched at UCSB for 18 years, was elected Wednesday as vice president of the National Academy of Sciences, the country’s most influential science organization.
The academy, located in Washington, D.C., has 1,900 members and 300 foreign associates. Langer, who begins his four-year term in July, will chair the National Research Council, which provides the government with official scientific and technical advice.
Beyond research council duties, Langer said he is interested in the other activities of the academy, including human rights activities, international scientific symposia and helping to shape the scientific policy of the federal government.
“I can confidently say that the entire campus community shares my pride and joy in his election,” Chancellor Henry Yang said. “He is an ideal choice for that post, and the leadership and vision he will bring to the task will beneficially impact not just the scientific community, but also society as a whole.”
Since his early school days Langer has been interested in science and math. “I realized I was getting my math notebook out and solving problems during breaks, drawing models and things like that,” he said. “I realized I really couldn’t imagine doing something else.”
He spent his undergraduate years at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now called Carnegie Mellon University. During his senior year there, he took a reading course with Walter Kohn, now a UCSB physics professor and Nobel laureate, and the two developed a friendship that would last a lifetime.
In 1982, Kohn asked Langer to join him at UCSB’s Institute for Theoretical Physics (ITP). “He was so outstanding,” Kohn said, “that one would have had to be both deaf and blind not to notice it.”
“That was the best job in my profession,” Langer said. “Undergraduates don’t recognize this. This is the best place in the world to do physical science research. You can get a huge amount done, you can interact with lots of people, you can learn a lot about different things.”
Kohn said he immediately noticed Langer’s potential. “I knew him as this fairly rare combination of an excellent scientist and also an excellent person, with very broad views, and very well-organized and an ability to implement those ideas that he thought he was suggesting about,” Kohn said. “When he came, I must say it was pretty obvious to me that he was going to go a lot further in both directions.”
In 1989, Langer brought those skills to a new job as director of the ITP, a position he held for six years. As his administrative career progressed, Langer also continued researching. He is a theoretical physicist, which he said means “if you get me too close to a laboratory, equipment starts to break.”
Langer was first elected as a member of the National Academy in 1985 for his research of nonequilibrium pattern formation – how objects, like snowflakes, get their shape. He was nominated for vice president for his research and commitment to the National Academy of Sciences. Recently, he has turned to more unconventional subjects, like earthquakes and how solids break. He is also involved with UCSB’s Materials Research Lab.
The new position would not force Langer to give up his research, which he said could be done on airplanes. It might, however, force him to teach less. He has just returned to teaching after several years as president of the American Physical Society, and is teaching two graduate courses in physics this quarter.
“I suspect the students have a completely different take on this, but I’m enjoying it a lot,” he said.
Kohn said he was not surprised by Langer’s election.
“He’s a very well-balanced person. Very thoughtful, as a friend very dependable, has a wonderful family … I feel very fortunate,” Kohn said. “At my age, old friends are one of the most wonderful things. To have the Langers as good friends for something approaching half a century is a great thing in my life.”