Biophysicist Alan Bearden, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, died unexpectedly last week at age 67

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--Alan J. Bearden, professor emeritus of neurobiology and biophysics in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, died on Feb. 17 at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley following a heart attack. He was 67 years old.

A real-life renaissance man, Bearden worked in biophysics, neurobiology, physics and chemistry. He was also a published novelist, photojournalist, radiation expert, pianist, opera lover and car enthusiast.

"Alan will be remembered as a man with great zest for life," said Geoffrey Owen, professor of molecular & cell biology and Bearden's long-time colleague. "He was generous and fiercely loyal, both to his friends and to his ideals."

Born in Baltimore, Md., Nov. 23, 1931, Bearden earned a bachelor's degree in physics at Johns Hopkins University when he was only 19 years old. Following graduation he took a commission in the U.S. Navy, spending four years on active duty and serving in the Korean War. Returning to Johns Hopkins, he earned his PhD in physics in 1958.

Before coming to UC Berkeley in 1969, Bearden held faculty positions in physics at the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University and in chemistry at UC San Diego. At UC Berkeley, he served as chair of the Department of Biophysics and Medical Physics from 1979 to 1984 and, following a reorganization of UC Berkeley's biological sciences, he became a professor of neurobiology.

"Alan was not only a forward thinker, he was also an activist. He worked tirelessly to maintain the department's strength in the physical sciences while striving to broaden its focus to encompass the newest developments in biology," said Owen. "He understood that the divisions between physics and chemistry and biology are artificial ones. To him it was all one thing: science."

During his varied scientific career, Bearden did research on the physics of x-ray spectroscopy, the physics of Mössbauer spectroscopy, protein structure and function, bioenergetics and the mechanisms of photosynthesis. His most significant scientific achievements were his measurement of the mass of the mu meson (muon), which helped establish its identity as a heavy electron; his pioneering use of Mössbauer spectroscopy, in particular its application to biological molecules; and his identification of the iron-sulfur proteins as the electron receptors in the photosynthetic reaction center.

"His research always addressed important questions and was characterized by a rare combination of care, rigor and elegance," said Owen.

A few years before taking emeritus status at UC Berkeley in 1993, Bearden became interested in sensory transduction - the processes by which information from our senses is transmitted to the brain. While working on this project, Bearden and then graduate student Michael O'Neill invented LAMDA (Laser Amplified Motion Detection and Analysis), a method of laser feedback interferometry which permits the imaging of nanometer-scale structures.

LAMDA has since found application in several scientific and commercial devices, including an ultra-high resolution optical microscope and a high-density data storage system. Since 1994 Bearden had pursued mass production of a LAMDA-based microscope with his start-up company Quadrant Imaging.

"He enjoyed the adventure of starting from scratch. He greatly enjoyed the discovery process," said Michael O'Neill, senior vice president and co-founder of Calimetrics, an optical data storage company that grew out of Bearden's LAMDA work. "He was very supportive of others' attempts to try something new and he encouraged them in finding their own way. He relished finding a match in somebody that resonated around that process."

He was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society and was an Associate Member of the U.S. Naval Institute.

Bearden is survived by two sons, Roger Bearden of Chicago and Colin Bearden of Austin, Tx.

A campus event in celebration of his life is scheduled for March, though a date has not yet been set.

In lieu of flowers, Bearden's family has designated three of his favorite organizations as benefactors. Contributions in Bearden's name should be sent to the UC Botanical Gardens or Cal Performances, UC Berkeley, 94720; or to the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, 333 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94105 .

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