Isaac Abella, physicist, teacher and resident master, 1934-2016

Prof. Emeritus Isaac Abella, a popular teacher, cherished resident master and noted physicist who worked on the early development of lasers, died Oct. 23 in Chicago of complications related to cancer. He was 82.

Abella taught at the University of Chicago for nearly five decades and was a longtime resident master at the Shoreland residence hall. As a physicist, he specialized in laser physics, quantum optics and spectroscopy of rare-Earth laser materials. While an accomplished scholar, his first love was teaching and mentoring students.

“Teaching was his forte, and mentoring undergraduate students is what he would be the proudest of,” said his son Benjamin Abella, an associate professor and physician at the University of Pennsylvania. “He made his classroom like a conversation. He was almost gleeful in his desire to share stories and engage students. That was his magic.”

At UChicago, Prof. Henry J. Frisch remembered how he and Abella discussed ways to teach physics topics, such as the concept of special relativity or the Coriolis force, which describes the effect of Earth’s rotation on the motion of terrestrial objects.

He made his classroom like a conversation. He was almost gleeful in his desire to share stories and engage students. That was his magic.Benjamin Abella on his father, Prof. Emeritus Isaac Abella

“He cared deeply about transmitting the essence of the physics,” Frisch said. “He was a very popular and successful teacher who was extremely interested in pedagogy.”

Abella and his wife, Mary Ann Abella, were resident masters for 16 years at Shoreland, serving as mentors and hosting events from pizza parties in the dorm to field trips to the Lyric Opera.

Katie Callow-Wright, UChicago’s vice president and chief of staff in the Office of President, met the Abellas in 2000 when she moved into the Shoreland as assistant director of housing. She described the couple as a “force of nature” at Abella’s memorial service on Oct. 26 at Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Hyde Park.

“I became part of the well-organized machine the Abellas had created to support the engaged, interesting, complex community they fostered so thoughtfully as resident masters of the Shoreland,” she said.

Abella was born in Toronto, Canada in 1934. He earned a bachelor of arts in physics and astronomy from the University of Toronto in 1957, and then earned a master’s and doctorate in physics from Columbia University.

While at Columbia, he worked under Nobel laureate Charles H. Townes, conducting research on early lasers. His thesis is among the earliest works on two-photon absorption. He wrote Some Properties of Ruby Optical Masers with Applications to Non-Linear Effects, which was published in 1963.

Abella started teaching at UChicago in 1965. He won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1969.

During his career, Abella was a fellow at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in Boulder, Colo.; a visiting scientist at the Optical Sciences Division of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.; a guest scientist at the National Bureau of Standards at the Boulder Laboratories; and research fellow at Argonne National Laboratory.

He has served on the Education Committee of the American Physical Society; chaired APS’ Education Committee of Laser Science Topical Group; and chaired APS’s Frank Isakson Prize for Optical Effects in Solids Committee. He was elected fellow of the APS, fellow of the Optical Society and president of the Chicago Chapter of Sigma Xi. In addition, Abella was a member of the National Research Council’s National Science Standards Working Group, which published the K-12 National Science Standards in 1996.

Abella was a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, which addressed science literacy in the United States. He was also a member of the NAS Mathematics (K-12) Standards Review Committee on behalf of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He also played a big role in University of Chicago’s Physics Department Teaching Activities Committee.

Abella retired from the University in 2011.

Abella was a frequent writer of letters to the editor. One printed in the New York Times in 1992 addressed the physics behind conspiracy theories regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It attracted quite a bit of attention, including Abella being interviewed on a TV program hosted by Penn & Teller, a comedy duo who were taking a skeptical look at conspiracy theories.

Abella is survived by his son, Benjamin; daughter, Sarah Abella; brother, Jack Abella; sister, Bracha Glass; and his six grandchildren: Lillie, Hannah, Sam, Max, Asher and Avi. He was preceded in death by his wife, Mary Ann.