Peter A. Wolff, professor emeritus of physics, a semiconductor research pioneer, visionary science administrator and an indispensable guide for MIT physicists seeking careers in industry, died on Sept. 5 due to complications from Alzheimers disease. A native of Oakland, Calif., and a longtime resident of Cambridge, Wolff was 89.

Wolff served the MIT community extraordinarily well for more than 30 years, says Marc Kastner, dean of the School of Science and the Donner Professor of Science at MIT. In addition to his own research contributions, Peter laid the foundation of what has become one of the strongest condensed matter physics efforts in the world.

Wolffs focus within condensed matter physics was on the physics of metals, insulators and, especially, semi-conductors, whose properties form the core technology of all electronics, from computers to solar cells.

His research career began at Bell Laboratories in the 1950s, just after the transistor was invented; his work there retains significance today. Physicists continue to cite his 1961 paper co-authored with 1972 Nobel Laureate and MIT alumnus J. Robert Schrieffer 53 (physics) about 25 times a year, and his scientific legacy continues at MIT. The most important work of my own group is on the Kondo problem in semiconductor nanostructures, which is one connection of my work with his, Kastner says.

In work that began in the 1960s at Bell Labs and continued into the 1990s, Wolff also developed the theory of how light interacts with unpaired electron spins in semiconductors, and he made important contributions to the behavior of plasmas in metals, especially at metal surfaces.

In a co-authored 1998 paper, Wolff showed that a metal film with holes in it could transmit light efficiently, even when the wavelength of the light is much larger than the size of the holes. This was completely unexpected, Kastner says.

Wolff showed that this could be explained theoretically using the interaction between the light and the plasma in the metal at the surface. The 1998 publication is still cited more than 200 times annually.

As a scientist, he appreciated the importance of basic and of broadly applied research, says Robert Birgeneau, former dean of the School of Science at MIT. His research experiences in academe and in industry were great resources for students.

A visionary leader for MIT physics

Wolff joined the MIT faculty in 1970, charged with teaching, conducting research and establishing condensed matter physics then known as solid-state physics as a new discipline within the department. Within three years, he had successfully applied his industry management experience to academic life.

He assembled a world-class research group, hiring Kastner in 1973; John Joannopoulos, now the Francis Wright Davis Professor of Physics