Not Your Average Joe

By Judith Green

When physicist Joe Trodahl ’63 spoke this past fall to a group of alumni about his life and travels, he brought a PowerPoint presentation of visual aids. The first slide was of John Amos Comenius, brooding in bronze at the entrance to campus.

“I came to Moravian in 1959 as an engineering student,” he said. “The Comenius statue was put up and dedicated while I was here, and I saw the first of many beer barrels put in his arms.”

H. Joseph Trodahl Jr. grew up in Alaska, where his father, Harry J. Trodahl ’30, was a Moravian missionary. Two of the four Trodahl children went to Moravian, and Trodahl’s sister Evelyn (Lyn) ’68 chairs the Board of Trustees of Moravian Theological Seminary. But while Lyn Trodahl Chynoweth went to work for IBM and settled in suburban Connecticut, where she now runs a consulting company, Joe Trodahl ended up halfway around the world.

After Moravian, he went to Michigan State University for his doctorate and then the University of British Columbia for postdoctoral research before settling at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. “I thought it was a terrible mistake for the first three years,” he says. “There was not much in the way of facilities; and because it was so remote, it was hard to communicate.”

But after more than 30 years there, he has become a genuine New Zealander. Trodahl speaks with an interesting accent that mixes American vowels with British expressions and colonial slang. He’s married to a New Zealander, Margaret, and when he shows slides of Wellington’s harbor, backed by spectacular mountains, he’s as enthusiastic as a travel agent about the beauties of the country he has long called home.

Time has healed his initial reservations. With the advent of e-mail, communication with colleagues around the world takes place almost in real time.

And when Alan MacDiarmid, a graduate of Victoria University, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2000, the New Zealand government showed its pride in this native son by showering largesse upon the scientific research facility at Victoria named after him: MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, where Trodahl works.

When Jack Ridge ’53, professor emeritus of physics, introduced Trodahl at the alumni gathering, he called him “the kind of student for whom the professor was irrelevant.” Trodahl’s wide-ranging areas of expertise indicate that nothing has changed much since his student days: he’s still someone who goes out on his own and reaches for new knowledge. “I’m unusual in having several specialties,” he admits.

Most of Trodahl’s early career work was in semiconductors, a class of materials that were basic to the burgeoning computer industry in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Then he went into superconductors, the highly desirable media for electrical transmission without loss of energy, in the mid-1980s.

But he also has more than the usual share of sidelines. At Moravian, where he was a visiting professor for the fall semester, he worked with a physics student, Matthew Bowers ’03, and with Carl Salter, associate professor of chemistry, to build a Raman spectrometer. This instrument, which has applications to both chemistry and physics, monitors the structure of and impurities in semiconductors during molecular growth. It’s just one of those things he’s picked up along the way: “something I’ve done a lot of,” he shrugs.

Meanwhile, Trodahl also spent his semester working on his own project, studying the behavior of supercharged electrical particles in a specialized instrument called a synchrotron. This took him to Imperial College in London and the University of Wisconsin to work in their labs, as he collected supporting data from around the world via e-mail.

And then there’s the sea ice project, which takes him every summer (the Southern hemisphere’s summer, meaning our winter) to Antarctica to measure the ice and provide data to climatologists studying the phenomenon of global warming.

While globe-trotting, he has hobnobbed with the Nobel laureates of this highly specialized field. First there was John Bardeen, the only winner of two Nobel prizes in the same field, whom he met at Michigan State. He met Philip W. Anderson and Sir Nevill Mott, two of the three Nobel co-winners of 1977, while doing research in Göteborg, Sweden. Anderson, of Bell Labs, was a notoriously argumentative man. “One of the highlights of my career,” Trodahl smiles, “is that I had a scientific disagreement with him.”

Trodahl’s research also has taken him to the Max-Planck-Institut in Stuttgart and the Centro Atómico at San Carlos de Bariloche, on the shores of of Lake Huemul in the mountains of Patagonia in southern Argentina.

Trodahl has retired from Victoria University, though that’s still home base for his research. His son, Halvar, is now studying there, on his way to becoming another physicist.

“That’s one of the reasons I retired,” Trodahl said with a grin. “So I don’t have to teach him.”

Matthew Bowers, Joe Trodahl, and Carl Salter tinker with with the Raman spectrometer they built.
Photo: Michael P. Wilson