In Memoriam: Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky

By Keeny, Spurgeon M., Jr. | Arms Control Today, November 2007 | Go to article overview
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In Memoriam: Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky

Keeny, Spurgeon M., Jr., Arms Control Today

With the passing of Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky-"Pief" to his many friends-the world has lost not only an internationally acclaimed scientist but also a dedicated leader of the effort to reduce the threat of nuclear war through arms control. Although many members of the scientific community were outspoken in their profound concern about the consequences of nuclear war, Pief was one of the few senior scientists who devoted a significant portion of his intellectual efforts to the difficult technical issues related to achieving reliable control and reduction of nuclear weapons.

Pief grew up in Hamburg, Germany, until his family emigrated to the United States after his father, a distinguished art historian, was fired from his professorship by Hitler's edict barring Jews from teaching. After graduating as valedictorian from Princeton University and receiving a Ph.D. from Cal Tech, Pief began work with the Manhattan Project even before he received his U.S. citizenship. One of his contributions to that effort was designing the instrumentation that determined the yield of the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

In scientific circles, Pief is best known for his tireless and imaginative leadership beginning in 1961 in the construction and operation of the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC). It was designed to accelerate electrons to extremely high velocities and bombard other elementary particles in order to determine the fundamental constituents of the nucleus from the resulting interactions. In completing the gigantic two-mile-long device in 1966 on time and unprecedentedly under budget, he demonstrated his remarkable managerial and problemsolving skills. When no U.S. company would meet his quality specifications of a critical component required in large quantities, he solved the problem by creating his own production line and manufacturing the components on-site. His early, successful completion of SLAC made possible three Nobel Prize winners and advanced the careers of hundreds of future physicists.

Despite his heavy responsibilities in the planning, construction, and direction of SLAC, Pief began his half-century-long engagement with issues of national security and arms control by playing a key role with President Dwight Eisenhower's science advisers, James Killian and then George Kistiakowski. The first time I met Pief was during the negotiations for a comprehensive test ban treaty, when in 1959 he headed the U.S. delegation to an ad hoc working group on the detection of nuclear tests in outer space.

The working group was convened hurriedly because U.S. critics of the future treaty were arguing that clandestine tests could be conducted in outer space and even behind the moon, scenarios that the 1958 report of an experts group on the monitoring of nuclear weapons tests did not address. Although there was agreement as to the amounts of radiation associated with such tests, the working group deadlocked over the distances at which the tests could be detected. The leader of the Soviet delegation, Yevgeny Federov, a scientist with close Communist Party connections, opposed including any estimates on the limits of detection, apparently based on Marxist/Leninist ideological grounds that human capabilities are potentially unlimited. Pief, however, firmly opposed such an unscientific conclusion and eventually found language regarding capabilities on which everyone could agree. For nearly half a century, Pief continued to champion a comprehensive test ban as important to U.S. security and refuted on technical grounds repeated arguments against it by the weapons laboratories and their supporters.

Pief was also at the center of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) debate, which engaged every president from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. As a member of the Presidents Science Advisory Committee and thereafter, he raised technical issues regarding the feasibility of various versions of the system and the effect that deployment of such systems would have on the nuclear arms race.

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In Memoriam: Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky


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