Panofsky, Wolfgang

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Panofsky, Wolfgang

Born Wolfgang Kurt Hermann Panofsky, April 24, 1919, in Berlin, Germany; died of a heart attack, September 24, 2007, in Los Altos, CA. Physicist. As the scientist largely responsible for the creation of Stanford University’s two-mile-long linear electron accelerator, Wolfgang Panofsky was known as a brilliant administrator, a political advisor who opposed the use of nuclear arms, and was instrumental in making discoveries about the neutral pi meson, a type of pion or elementary particle.

The neutral pi meson, a subatomic particle that theorists had predicted was instrumental in binding atomic nuclei, was difficult to isolate due to its short life span. Neutral pions decay quickly into gamma rays. Panofsky and his colleague, Jack Steinberger, were the first scientists to isolate the neutral pi meson. Through this work, and his role as a researcher and administrator in nuclear physics, Panofsky made a great impact on the study of particle physics.

Born in Berlin, Germany, in 1919, Panofsky was the son of a professor of art history who taught in Hamburg. By eight years old, Panofsky showed signs of high intelligence and was a strong chess player. In 1934, the family fled Germany to escape persecution as Jews. They settled in New Jersey, where Panofsky’s father took a position teaching art history at Princeton. Both Panofsky and his older brother, Hans, enrolled in Princeton rather than attending high school. At 15, Panofsky chose to study subjects that required little written English and took courses in mathematics, physics, and Latin. He received his first degree in four years, graduating at the age of 19. Panofsky and his brother were voted “most brilliant in their class,” according to the Washington Post. Desiring to travel away from home, he enrolled in graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, where he received his doctorate in 1942.

At the California Institute of Technology, Panofsky co-wrote a textbook on optics and electricity with classmate Carl Anderson, which was used throughout World War II. He also studied under physicist Jesse DuMond, who had developed an X-ray spectrometer that Panofsky was instrumental in bringing to operation. Panofsky married DuMond’s daughter, Adele, after he graduated.

Because of California law, Panofsky was considered an “enemy alien” after his graduation, which meant he had to obey a number of restrictions on his personal freedom. Despite this, he continued to teach at the California Institute of Technology, developing a reputation in electron physics. With the help of professor Robert Millikan, Panofsky became a natu-ralized citizen, and he worked on a number of war projects, eventually becoming a consultant on the Manhattan Project, the military project for developing the atomic bomb. These experiences led him to become an activist for peace later in life. “He really believed in disarming the world,” his daughter Carol Panofsky told the Washington Post.

After working for several years at the University of California—Berkeley’s Radiation Laboratory, where he and Jack Steinberger isolated the neutral pi meson, Panofsky left the institution due to the oath of loyalty the university began to require. He was offered positions at Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but Panofsky accepted a position at Stanford, where he began in 1951. Similar to his time with DuMond, Panofsky arrived at Stanford as a machine being developed—here an upgrade to the university’s linear accelerator—was not operable. The length of the machine made using it for experiments nearly impossible. Panofsky developed a new way of using the machinery through a separate experimental station, and by 1953, the accelerator was running at full functionality.

Along with his work for Stanford, Panofsky served as a government advisor. He made efforts to establish communication, during the height of the Cold War, between the Soviet Union and the United States. He contacted scientists on both sides, encouraging them to explain to their leaders the hor-rific consequences of all-out nuclear war. Panofsky provided advice in the U.S. State Department, helping them to develop ways to monitor radioactive fallout. His work was instrumental to the development of the international treaty banning atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and from 1961 to 1964, Panofsky served on the President’s Science Advisory Committee. He remained active as an advocate for peace throughout his life.

In the late 1950s, Panofsky began lobbying for an electron accelerator, which he helped to design. Due to the great expense of the accelerator, which was planned to run for two miles beneath the campus, it was nearly abandoned, but President John F. Kennedy, who had used Panofsky as a science advisor, became a strong supporter of the project and saw it through. Panofsky became the project leader in 1960, and the project was completed in 1966. Due to his insistence that the facility, called the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (or SLAC), be opened to all researchers, “Panofsky created not only a physical setting but a community of physicists, engineers, technicians, and support staff,” Stanford physicist Sidney Drell told the Los Angeles Times. “His patience and energy never seemed exhausted: He led with candor, with an innate ability to resolve conflicts constructively and by being involved in every aspect of the lab’s activities.” Panofsky served as the director of SLAC until his retirement in 1984. During his tenure, three experiments run at the facility received Nobel Prizes. Despite his retirement, Panofsky remained active at the facility up until his death.

“The world has lost a truly great man,” Persis Drell, the acting director of SLAC, said to the Los Angeles Times on the announcement of Panofsky’s death. “[Panofsky’s] impact on particle physics was enormous but, in addition, everyone will remember him for his unflinching integrity, personal warmth, and desire to fight for the principles he believed in.” Panofsky had a heart attack on September 24, 2007, and died at his home in Los Altos, California. He is survived by his wife, Adele, his sons Richard Jacob, Edward Frank, and Steven Thomas; and his daughters Margaret Ann and Carol Eleanor. Panofsky’s autobiography, Panofsky on Physics, Politics, and Peace was released a week after his death. Sources: Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2007, p. B8; New York Times, September 28, 2007, p. C10; Times (London), October 2, 2007; Washington Post, September 28, 2007, p. B7.

—Alana Joli Abbott