A physicist hired this summer to play an integral role in the new doctorate program in physics and conduct groundbreaking research in the quest for dark matter was identified Monday as the man who died last week at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
Alberto Lemut, 37, came to Mines in August from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., where he began research for an ion accelerator that he continued at Mines.
Lemut was found dead Thursday morning in the Electrical Engineering/Physics building. He died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to Rapid City Police Department spokeswoman Tarah Heupel.
The head of the Physics Department at Mines, Andre Petukhov, was visibly shaken by the news. On Monday, he called Lemut their "poster boy" for the future of physics at Mines.
"The (DIANA) project is very interesting," Petukhov said. "It goes to to the very core of the formation of the universe."
The DIANA, or Dual Ion Accelerator for Nuclear Astrophysics, is a project based at the Sanford Underground Research facility that Lemut had been researching and working with for about four years while he was at the Berkeley lab.
Lemur moved from El Cerrito, Calif., in August to serve as an assistant professor of physics for Mines and the principal investigator for the project called CASPAR, or Compact accelerator for performing astrophysical research, also known as the DIANA Demonstrator. The demonstrator is a sort of prototype for the DIANA.
The tight-knit physics department of 10 faculty and staff at Mines was deeply affected by the death of their colleague, according to Petukhov.
"The whole department is really wounded," he said.
Petukhov recalled evenings in the physics building when he, another professor and Lemut would take dinner breaks together.
"When you met him and talked to him, you just know he is a good person," he said.
Lemut was from Italy and earned his doctoral and university degrees in physics at the University of Genoa in Genova, Italy, in 2005. He worked on the LUNA underground accelerator at the Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy before he joined the Berkeley lab in 2009.
Those who knew him and worked with him in Italy, California and for a short time in South Dakota were shocked at news of his death.
Petukhov said he received an email from one of Lemut's former colleagues in Italy that expressed utter disbelief at his manner of death.
Rod Clark, the acting division director for the nuclear science division at the Lawrence Berkely National Lab, worked with Lemut and said while you can never know what is going on inside someone's head, Lemut seemed to be happy with his work.
"He was a very sweet man who was a gentleman and he always seemed really engaged and enthusiastic about his research," Clark said in a phone interview Monday. "I talked to whom I considered his closest friends because I was a bit worried about them, and they are all equally shocked."
Angela Chiller, one of the 12 doctoral candidates in the new physics program at Mines, spent most of her time doing research at the Sanford Lab. She expressed regret Monday for the lost potential in science and friendship.
"Dr. Lemut's passing was a loss on so many levels," she wrote in an email response to the Journal. "While we were brand new colleagues in physics and didn't have enough time to get to know him, losing a young physicist when we are such a small, close group in physics was heart wrenching."
Mines President Heather Wilson said she recalled laughing and joking with Lemut just days before he died.
Wilson said she was working late one night just a week before his death when she ran into Lemut in the hallway. She recalled a friendly chat filled with plans for the future.
"A week before he passed away, he was working late and so was I," Wilson said in a phone interview Monday. "I stopped to chat with him and one of his colleagues. We were laughing about how we hadn’t got together for dinner yet. I guess he was a great cook of Italian food and I love Italian food and we’d always talk about it. He was very friendly, a very nice man and brilliant."