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Dr. Mark O. Robbins, a physicist and Johns Hopkins professor, dies

Mark Robbins did carpentry and grew orchids to relax.
Mark Robbins did carpentry and grew orchids to relax. (Handout / HANDOUT)

When Mark O. Robbins found a hobby that interested him, he immersed himself in it. That may explain how it took him almost 10 years to craft a crib.

While a student at Harvard University, Mr. Robbins visited his roommate’s family farm, chopped down a cherry tree, and removed the wood. Nearly 10 years later, he hand-delivered a crib to the roommate.

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“He said he wanted it for himself, but he made a beautiful crib, which took years to perfect, and gave it to me when my first daughter was born,” said Andrew Strominger, who choked up while remembering his friend’s gesture. “There were two or three other pieces, and every one of them was perfect. They were sanded by hand, not by machine. They were perfect and beautiful.”

Dr. Robbins, a condensed matter physicist who taught at the Johns Hopkins University’s Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy for more than 30 years, died Aug. 13 from a heart attack while exercising at his home in Baltimore. He was 64.

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As the associate director of the Institute for Data Intensive Engineering and Science, Dr. Robbins was instrumental in an effort to construct a shared computer cluster and then expand that system.

“Mark was one of a select few who really helped define the field of soft matter physics and set the agenda for the field over the past few decades,” fellow professor Robert Leheny wrote via email. “His leadership will be sorely missed. At Johns Hopkins, he also spearheaded the effort to make the university a leader in high performance computing. His passing is a huge loss for the University.”

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, Dr. Robbins was the eldest of five children raised in Newton, Massachusetts, by the former Dorothy Bigelow, a homemaker, and Owen Robbins, a since-retired chief financial officer for Teradyne, a developer of automatic test equipment.

Dr. Robbins enrolled at Harvard, where he met Alan M. Garber.

“Mark and I met the day we both arrived at Harvard as freshmen,” Dr. Garber, now provost at Harvard, wrote via email. “I came from a small Midwestern city [Rock Island, Illinois] that seemingly nobody in New England had heard of. He grew up near Harvard and had been a superstar high school student. He made me feel welcome from the moment we met. He was warm, friendly, down-to-earth, and incredibly smart. We became friends immediately and roommates in the years that followed. And it didn’t take long to realize that he was even more brilliant, more generous, and more fun-loving than he seemed at first.”

Dr. Strominger, director of Harvard’s Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature, who began rooming with Dr. Robbins in his junior year in 1975, called Dr. Robbins “brilliant and talented,” adding that his friend “was one of the happiest people I’ve ever known.”

Dr. Robbins managed to find the fun in adversity even in an ill-fated beer-making enterprise.

“We attacked this beer thing and read the books and figured this whole thing out and got the equipment, and the beer was just absolutely horrible,” Dr. Strominger said. “And we were stuck with a few cases of this stuff that we had to drink. We dropped that one. We couldn’t figure that one out. That was beyond our skill set.”

After graduating from Harvard University in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in physics, Dr. Robbins spent a year as a Churchill Fellow at the University of Cambridge in England before earning a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1983. He then completed a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at Exxon’s Corporate Research Science Laboratory in Annandale, New Jersey, before joining Johns Hopkins in 1986.

Dr. Robbins’ specialized field of study was non-equilibrium processes such as friction and adhesion, analyzing the atomic origins of macroscopic phenomena like earthquakes and avalanches.

“Among the topics in which Mark made seminal contributions include the physics of friction and adhesion, the mechanics of fracture, and polymers,” Dr. Leheny wrote. “Many of the phenomena Mark studied can be described as ‘far from equilibrium.’ Research into such problems was somewhat outside the mainstream when Mark got started, but the work of early pioneers like Mark showed the rich physics that could be uncovered from the study of such phenomena and helped to make them established areas of physics research. He also understood the experimental side of physics as few theoretical physicists do, which led him to make unique insights.”

Patricia McGuiggan, who married Dr. Robbins in 1993 in Minneapolis, said her husband enjoyed teaching, mentoring, and researching equally. “He liked to figure out how things worked at the molecular scale,” she said from their home in Baltimore.

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Dr. Garber said Dr. Robbins had a knack for breaking down difficult concepts for students.

“He always wanted to be sure that his teaching was understood, taking whatever time was needed,” he wrote. “I would also guess that his students would feel respected, even when they had a hard time understanding the material he was teaching. His teaching skills were recognized from an early age. By the time we were sophomores in college, he was teaching grad students.”

Dr. McGuiggan, an associate research professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering, said she met Dr. Robbins in 1989 when she went to interview for an opening at Exxon and Dr. Robbins was one of the interviewers.

“I did not get the job, and I’ve never forgiven him for it,” she said jokingly.

Dr. Strominger recalled a camping trip to a lake in the High Sierras in 1992 with his wife, three daughters, and Dr. Robbins. Dr. Strominger and Dr. Robbins carried the two youngest girls for the entire six-mile trek, walked back to collect food they had purchased, and hiked back to cook dinner.

“Mark loved it just because it was such an outrageous thing to do, but it was a nice thing for me,” he said.

Dr. Robbins’ passion for woodworking — which included building a bed that could hold up to 2,000 pounds, a porch roof, and the re-glazing of a set of windows on the family’s 100-year-old house — gave way to an interest in orchids, which he adopted from an uncle and which further flourished after a research trip to Brazil in 1987. Dr. Robbins cultivated as many as 500 orchids at one time at his home and in his office in the university’s Bloomberg Center and developed new breeds, earning an Award of Merit from the American Orchid Society and naming two of them after his children, Thomas and Catherine.

Dr. McGuiggan said growing orchids was an outlet for her husband.

“I think he found them challenging and relaxing,” she said. “And he found the people who grew them interesting as well. So by bringing the flowers to shows and meetings, he found the people around him very interesting.”

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Dr. McGuiggan said her husband enjoyed shopping, dancing to disco and swing music, and traveling. But one of his other hobbies, buying and dining on pungent cheeses, proved to be too much at times.

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“We’d kick him out of the house sometimes because they were so bad,” Dr. McGuiggan said with a laugh.

Dr. Robbins was cremated. A memorial service is being planned.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Robbins is survived by one son, Thomas Robbins of Madison, Wisconsin; one daughter, Catherine Robbins of Baltimore; his parents, Owen and Dorothy Robbins of Weston, Massachusetts; three brothers, Bradford Robbins of Mountain View, California, Andrew Robbins of Newton, Massachusetts, and Gregory Robbins of Wellesley, Massachusetts; and one sister, Marion Robbins of Weston, Massachusetts.

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