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Materials Man
The Time of His Life



Materials Man
Linn Hobbs (McC66) is a scientist whose interests range from rust to bone to wine and 19th-century pianos.

Linn Hobbs with his son, Franklin, on the day Hobbs was named Honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire

Photo by Lynn Horner Keith
Linn Hobbs (McC66), one of those people who knows a little about everything, can rattle off three facts about the molecular structure of a Coca-Cola can without taking a single breath. He speaks passionately of clocks, wine and fortepianos; he is distressed that work is the only avocation for many of his colleagues.

Materials science is essentially the study of what things are made of, and Hobbs, a professor in that discipline at MIT, is one of its tireless champions, regularly nudging young brains at MIT to join the field. He does so partly by teaching an introductory course in archaeological materials because, he says, most of us are fascinated by what people made and did long ago.

Hobbs grew up in Detroit, rummaging around gravel quarries and tagging monarch butterflies with his mother, a paleontologist. When he arrived at Northwestern, he enrolled in an introductory course in materials science, taught by the late professor John Hilliard, that changed his life.

“I went to the department my second quarter and experienced a breath of fresh air,” Hobbs relates. He convinced Morris Fine, then department chair and now professor emeritus, to permit him to take graduate courses, at the time the only ones offered in materials science except for the intro course. And he was, as he puts it, “almost adopted” by materials scientists Hans and Julia Weertman, now professors emeriti, who have remained his friends. After Hobbs graduated, the department was officially opened to undergraduates and along with its counterpart at MIT leads the field today.

In addition to his role as a materials science cheerleader, Hobbs is perhaps better known at MIT for teaching the school’s most popular course: In Vino Veritas, or to the lay imbiber, wine appreciation.

His interest in wine started while studying at Oxford as Northwestern’s first Marshall Scholar. Hobbs eventually became a wine steward at one of Oxford’s colleges and developed a love there for the grape and for all things English. He still visits the country often, and a palpable British accent lingers in his speech.

Hobbs, “interested in paying back a bit of his priceless experience,” has chaired the Northeast regional selection committee for Marshall Scholars for the past 13 years. For his efforts to foster better British-U.S. educational relations, Queen Elizabeth II in 2001 made Hobbs an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, an honor rarely accorded a U.S. citizen.

Hobbs’ current and typically wide-ranging research interests encompass salt, sand, rust and bone, “the sorts of materials found in the pockets of an average 6-year-old,” he notes. Whether the issue is housing nuclear waste or preventing the degradation of turbo jet engine blades, Hobbs believes the answers are in the fundamental materials science details.

Since 1994, with the help of a National Science Foundation grant, he has worked with Boston’s medical community to advance research on prosthetic hip and knee joints. Working on such quality-of-life projects is immensely satisfying to Hobbs — more so than the wine, the clocks or (he’s a keen skier) improvements to the design of downhill racing skis.

“Without these medical devices, we would have far more disabled people,” he says. “Materials changes touch people’s lives. Things in the pocket of an average 6-year-old hold the solutions to so much.”

And if anyone’s intent on finding them, it’s Hobbs.

— Molly Browne (J04)

 

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