Jack Blakely, professor emeritus and materials scientist, dies at 85

Jack Blakely, a professor emeritus of materials science and engineering who made several important discoveries in the field of surface science, died at Cayuga Medical Center on Oct. 29. He was 85.

Blakely joined Cornell in 1963 and served two separate terms as chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

His research focused on the relationship between the properties of solid surfaces and their structure and composition. Blakely was one of the first describe, in extensive detail, the formation of graphene on metal surfaces. And his studies of surface segregation of carbon in nickel gained fame in the field, according to his colleague Dieter Ast, professor emeritus of materials science and engineering.

Jack Blakely

“Jack experimentally showed that this was a reversible phase transformation, and that the surface thermodynamically is a separate phase,” Ast said. “This is no small deal. Physicist Max Planck, in his famous book on thermodynamics, was well aware that surfaces were different and could not be treated with bulk thermodynamics. Jack, as far as I know, was the first to prove that it included phase transformation.”

Blakely also developed a nanofabrication technique that made the surface of silicon wafers – the platform on which computer chips are made – atomically smooth. The research, conducted in the late 1990s with IBM collaborators, demonstrated new avenues for the manufacturing of smaller semiconductor circuits that are ubiquitous in today’s electronics.

Other principal areas of research included the kinetics of solid-liquid phase transitions, the thermodynamics and kinetics of self-assembled monolayer structures, the energetics and dynamics of atomic steps on surfaces, the role of surface charged layers in photographic materials, the oxidation process on alloy surfaces, and the structure and composition of glass surfaces.

Blakely authored or co-authored four textbooks, most notably “Surface Physics of Materials: Materials Science and Technology,” which provided information on transport of matter at surfaces, chemical analysis of surfaces, and adhesion and friction.

He taught a broad range of undergraduate and graduate courses, and was an important mentor to many students, according to Christopher Umbach, a former graduate student of Blakely’s who is now a senior lecturer in materials science and engineering.

“Jack gave students in his research group the freedom and resources to pursue ideas on their own,” Umbach said. “He strove to treat us as peers. My years of Ph.D. and then postdoctoral research were an extraordinary intellectual adventure in partnership with Jack.”

Blakely was a fellow of the Science and Engineering Research Council, the American Physical Society, the Institute of Physics, and the National Science Foundation. He was also a Guggenheim fellow and received the Kelvin Prize in Experimental Physics in 1960.

When he wasn’t in the laboratory or the classroom, Blakely enjoyed music and athletics. He kept a violin in his office – one of several instruments he played – and dedicated much of his time to coaching regional club and youth soccer teams.

Blakely is survived by his wife, Nanette, his daughters Robin and Karen, and six grandchildren.

Syl Kacapyr is public relations and content manager for the College of Engineering.

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Becka Bowyer