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Happy Birthday, Maurice Goldhaber

Maurice Goldhaber is 100 years old today.

That would be quite an accomplishment for anyone. In fact, the probability that a 40-year-old male reading this article will live to 100 is just over 8 percent.

But Goldhaber isn’t just any ordinary person. He’s the Forrest Gump of modern physics. I don’t mean that in the intellectual sense, of course, but in the sense of being present at many of the greatest developments of our time.

Whatever happened in physics, particle physics, astrophysics, or Big Bang theory in the last century, Goldhaber was probably there.  And while he wasn’t the most noted physicist of his era, he was widely heralded and certainly had an influential role throughout the 20th century.

In an article celebrating Goldhaber’s 90th birthday 10 years ago, he said the secret to his longevity was that he was “too busy to age.”  Given that the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Distinguished Scientist was still actively working at the time, that actually seems plausible.

Goldhaber was born in what was then Lemburg, Austria to a Jewish family and moved to Germany when he was 10. The family moved to Egypt briefly, returning to Chemnitz, Germany after WW I. He attended high school at the Chemnitz Real-Gymnasium, which placed a heavy emphasis on science, math and physics, as well as Latin, French, Greek and English.  He first became interested in math at age 13 but felt his calling was physics by the time he was 17.

Upon graduating, he studied under Lise Meitner, Erwin Schrodinger and Max von Laue at the University of Berlin until fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933.

Goldhaber then worked at the storied Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, where he studied under the father of modern physics, Ernest Rutherford (see The First Fly Zapped in a Cathedral, my earlier blog on Ernest Walton, who was also a student of Rutherford).  Goldhaber earned his Ph.D. in physics at Cambridge in 1936.

Working in 1934 under James Chadwick at Cavendish, he made the first accurate measurement of the mass of a neutron. He thus showed that the neutron was not a compound of a proton and an electron, as was believed at the time, but a new particle. Chadwick, who would later be awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the neutron, also later joined the Manhattan Project and was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb.

Godlhaber meanwhile demonstrated that certain nuclei can be broken up by bombardment with slow neutrons, a discovery which would later prove useful for the development of nuclear reactors for electrical energy.

In 1938 Goldhaber was among a group of bright young physicists recruited to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Physics Department by Wheeler Loomis, who was criticized at the time for “spending cash like a drunken New Dealer.”  There Goldhaber met and married the remarkable physicist Gertrude Scharff in 1939. However, until they were naturalized as US citizens, they were not allowed to join war-related research, focusing instead on an ambitious research program in nuclear physics using radioactive sources and simple equipment.

One of their first experiments demonstrated that electrons and beta rays are one in the same.

Then, with Edward Teller, he developed the concept that coherent oscillations of the protons and neutrons in nuclei lead to a “giant dipole resonance.”  With physicist Lee Grodzins he demonstrated the leftward spin of neutrinos. And with Kenneth Bainbridge he showed that isomeric decay probability can be effected by the atom’s electronic environment.

He moved to Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1950, where he served as Physics Department Chair from 1960 to 1961, and Laboratory Director from 1961 to 1973.

He made a well-known bet with Hartland Snyder in about 1955 that anti-protons could not exist; when he lost the bet, he speculated that the reason anti-matter does not appear to be abundant in the universe is that before the Big Bang, a single particle, the “universon” existed that then decayed into “cosmon” and “anti-cosmon,” and that the cosmon subsequently decayed to produce the known cosmos. In the 1950s also he speculated that all fermions such as electrons, protons and neutrons are “doubled,” that is that each is associated with a similar heavier particle. He also speculated that in what became known as the Goldhaber-Christie model, the so-called strange particles were composites of just three basic particles.

Goldhaber has received numerous awards during the course of his long and extremely productive career, including the Tom W. Bonner Prize in Nuclear Physics in 1971, the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize in 1982, the National Medal of Science in 1983, the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1991, and the Enrico Fermi Award in 1999. He was president of the American Physical Society in 1982, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Goldhaber shares a unique family legacy. His brother Gerson, who was also a physicist, passed on last year at the age of 86.  Goldhaber’s wife, who also died at the age of 86, was also a physicist. The couple had two sons, Alfred and Michael, both of whom are also physicists and both of whom are also still alive.

His grandson is a professor of physics at Stanford University today.

Perhaps longevity has something to do not just with keeping busy, but with keeping busy in the field of physics…

In a captivating oral history of Goldhaber’s life recorded in January 1967 (it can be found here) Goldhaber recounts that one of his more valuable realizations was, if you have  a great idea one night, don’t cave to the inclination to rush to the office and tell your associates the first thing in the morning. “The other guy usually sees the negative part,” he said. His advice is to think the idea through a little further before announcing it. This usually gives sufficient time to prepare cogent responses to clever criticism.

Students recalled at his 90th birthday that he was fond of telling them to “listen to your inner voice, and do not run with the crowd.”


2 comments on “Happy Birthday, Maurice Goldhaber

  1. Fernando
    April 18, 2011

    Hi, I’m afraid there’s some mistakes in your text: Gertrude Scharff Goldhaber died in feb. 1998 at 86 years old and Gerson Goldhaber is not himself alive, he died last summer at 86…

    • siliconcowboy
      April 18, 2011

      Thank you Fernando! I sincerely appreciate the corrections.

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