29 October 2014

Malte Olsen – 50 years of physics experiments, teaching, Mars and a physics column


NBI’s physics column, Ask About Physics, is often called ‘Ask Malte’ and it is a very apt title as Malte Olsen is the editor of the popular column. Malte Olsen has 50 years of wide-ranging experience in the world of physics and can answer most of the hundreds of questions that the column gets.

Malte Olsen received his MSc in experimental solid state physics from the University of Copenhagen, Physical Laboratory 1 (now NBI) in 1966. He became a geometry instructor at DTU because “there was no State Educational Grant and Loan Scheme (SU) back then, so we threw ourselves at the work we could find,” he explains. Then he got an instructor position at the Physical Laboratory and taught physics labs “and I got hooked on teaching for the rest of my life – it was fun, it was exciting,” he says of a big part of his 50 years as a physicist. 

Malte Olsen has 50-year anniversary.Malte Olsen has 50-year anniversary.

But it is not quite that easy to describe 50 years. In ’69 he became amanuensis and in ’73 he became an associate professor in the Physical Laboratory. He explains that at that time, the different departments could be like small kingdoms, but after the student riots in ’73, democracy was introduced and institute and department heads were elected. 

In terms of research – he was already working with ultra-low temperatures back in ’66 and for that you needed a cryostat. The Finns were the world champions in cryostats and in ’69 Malte Olsen went to ONÄS, the technical university in Finland, to learn how to build one. Back home, he and two colleagues built a cryostat, which was to be used to study substances at very low temperatures and they got all the way down to 1.9 milli-Kelvin.

Mars missions

In ’84, the Mars researcher Jens Martin Knudsen needed to use low temperatures for Mössbauer spectroscopy to study the properties of iron. That is how Malte Olsen came to work in the Mars Group, where he has been particularly involved in studying the iron-containing minerals in Mars dust. Jens Martin Knudsen had the idea of making special magnets that went on NASA’s Mars missions. Normally you pay per gram for the experiments that go on the mission, but Morten Bo Madsen (the current head of the Mars Group) had the idea that the dust magnets could be combined with the colour targets to be used to calibrate the Mars robot’s camera by keeping the colour patches free of dust and thus the Danish experiments got a ‘free’ ride.

Malte Olsen developed a device that could measure the spectroscopic distribution of the reflected light from all angles. He has been a part of all of the Mars expeditions until in 2008. He has also worked in the accelerator group. On the fifth floor of HCØ stood an accelerator that you could use to study solid matter. You shot lead ions into the material to study their crystal structure.

A myriad of teaching duties

“And then I had a myriad of teaching duties and travelled around the county and taught physics teachers in primary and secondary schools and future teachers at teacher-training colleges,” explains Malte Olsen.

He has taught and had experimental courses for many years and he has been ‘loaned out’ and taught technical courses for students in the humanities at DTU. In addition to direct teaching, he has also authored and co-authored several textbooks for upper secondary schools and universities and he has sat on a number of boards and committees.  

“I’ve had fun,” he says.

In 2009, he retired as an associate professor at NBI, but his great knowledge and desire to teach and explain has not been lost, but is still being used and is thriving. Since 2009, Malte Olsen has been the editor of the physics column, Ask About Physics, which has about 20,000 page views a month. He answers most of the inquiries himself and if he can see that it is a school assignment they do not get a complete answer, as that would be cheating, but he helps with suggestions for books or online searches. Malte Olsen is ’still going strong’.

Malte Olsen will be celebrated at a reception on the 31 October.