Remembering Professor Cal Walker, Former Chair of the Department

On January 15, 2016, The Johns Hopkins University lost Professor James Calvin “Cal” Walker, an emeritus faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, to cancer.

Cal Walker was born Jan 16, 1935, grew up in North Carolina, and graduated from Harvard majoring in physics in 1956. After receiving his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Princeton, 1961, he came to Hopkins in 1963 and stayed ever since. He served as the Chair of the Department from 1987 to 1993. He also served on the Homewood Academic Council.

During the 1960s, in the heyday of the study of recoilless nuclear gamma ray resonances, better known as Mössbauer spectroscopy, Prof. Walker made several notable contributions. In particular, he and his JHU colleagues, Professors Yung K. Lee and Leon Madansky, pioneered the Mössbauer effect after Coulomb excitation of the atomic nucleus, using the Van der Graaf accelerator located in then Rowland (now Krieger) Hall. In the 1970s his interest shifted to condensed matter physics, in particular to ultrathin epitaxial films fabricated by the then newly developed molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) technique, which he termed “money-burning evaporator.” His best-known work probably was in the area of the magnetic properties of ultrathin iron (Fe) films. By placing isotopic Fe57, (which exhibits the Mössbauer effect) at different locations in a thin Fe film made of Fe56 (which does not), Prof. Walker and his students were able to map out for the first time the variation in materials’ magnetic properties near surfaces with atomic-scale resolution.

Cal was legendary for his love of flying, first of gliders and later of a variety of powered aircraft. Some of his colleagues and visitors, and most of his Ph.D. students, had the most memorable experience of their lives with Cal in the cockpit. His ability to walk away unscathed from disasters was equally legendary, as he survived several serious glider crashes, and a few forced landings with the World War II vintage Taylorcraft that he had rebuilt with canvas and wood.

Professor Walker had major impact on the Department of Physics and Astronomy during his time as Chair, guiding the department’s move to its current home in the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, and playing a leading role in numerous faculty hires during a time of important growth for the department. His tireless efforts and can-do attitude during this time were crucial in setting the department on the path it has followed in the past 25 years.

We extend our deepest sympathy to Cal’s wife Ann Finkbeiner, whose interest in our department, and unique perspective as a leading science writer have greatly enriched our academic and personal lives.

Cal’s colleagues and friends will always remember his immense energy and enthusiasm, and his complete unwillingness to accept that anything he set his sights on could not be accomplished. We have lost a colorful and unique colleague.

Click here to read Professor Walker’s obituary in the Baltimore Sun.