Wolfgang ‘Pief’ Panofsky, 88; nuclear physicist pushed for Stanford’s linear accelerator

Times Staff Writer

Wolfgang “Pief” Panofsky, the nuclear physicist and brilliant administrator who was the driving force for the creation of Stanford University’s 2-mile-long linear electron accelerator, made crucial discoveries about the nature of the neutral pi meson, advised three presidents about science and was a powerful proponent of nuclear arms control, died of a heart attack Monday at his home in Los Altos, Calif. He was 88.

“The world has lost a truly great man,” said physicist Persis Drell, acting director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). “Pief’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.”

Added Stanford Provost John Etchemendy, “Pief Panofsky’s contributions to SLAC and the field of physics have certainly earned him a place in Stanford’s pantheon of scholars. But it is equally important to note that his work on nuclear arms control earned him a reputation not just as a scientist but as a patriot whose life will continue to influence and inspire us for generations to come.”

Stanford had a modest reputation in electron physics when Panofsky joined the faculty in 1951. But an upgrade of the university’s Mark III linear accelerator had gone awry when its designer, William W. Hansen, had unexpectedly died two years earlier.


Among other problems, the lengthening of the accelerator to enable it to reach its designed energy goal of 1-billion electron volts had left the beam end of the accelerator 6 inches shy of the laboratory wall -- leaving no room for experimental apparatus. The only experimenter who was able to use it was extracting electrons at the halfway point.

Panofsky designed a new experimental station with a “beam switchyard” that shunted beams at selected energies into a variety of experimental apparatus. By 1953, the Mark III was running full tilt, and Panofsky and Edward Ginzton had established an umbrella physics laboratory in which Panofsky took primary responsibility for particle physics research.

The following year, Stanford Medical School cancer specialist Dr. Henry Kaplan began using the Mark III for his pioneering studies treating retinoblastoma, a form of eye cancer, and other tumors. Physicist Robert Hofstadter also used the Mark III for his Nobel Prize-winning studies that established the electromagnetic dimensions of the proton and neutron and heavier nuclei.

By mid-decade, Panofsky and Ginzton had begun planning Project M -- for “the Monster” -- an accelerator much larger than anything that had ever been built. When Ginzton left Stanford to join Varian Associates in 1960, Panofsky became the project leader.

Overcoming the objections of the Stanford faculty, Panofsky insisted that the new facility be opened to all comers. And defying the wishes of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which funded the project, he insisted that no classified military research be conducted there.

His perseverance overcame problems major and minor. Researchers at the Hanford, Wash., nuclear facility where plutonium had been isolated during World War II wanted the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center money to convert their reactors to produce electricity. Panofsky convinced Congress that was impractical.

Residents of the wealthy suburb of Woodside near the university objected to the need to install new power lines to energize the Stanford project, arguing that they should be placed underground at an additional cost of $3 million. Panofsky noted that the Woodside area had 500 above-ground power lines. If the residents would bury those lines, the accelerator center would bury its lines, he said. The objection was dropped.

Late in 1961, it looked as if the Bureau of the Budget would kill the project because of its expense, more than $114 million. According to the late Jerome Wiesner of MIT, when President John F. Kennedy found out that his science advisor Panofsky was its principal advocate, he became its strongest supporter and the project was approved.

Ground was broken in July 1962, and the project was completed four years later, on time and on budget.

According to Stanford physicist Sidney Drell, “Panofsky created not only a physical setting but a community of physicists, engineers, technicians and support staff. . . . 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 remained as director until 1984, overseeing the addition of a variety of major upgrades to the facility, including the installation of the SPEAR and PEP-I storage rings and the beginning of an upgrade to convert it into a linear collider, the technology that would be the basis for the next generation of high-energy electron/positron colliders. Four more Nobel Prizes resulted from research done at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center while he was in charge.

Wolfgang Kurt Hermann Panofsky was born on April 24, 1919, in Berlin. His father was the eminent art historian Erwin Panofsky. Wolfgang and his older brother Hans showed early signs of intelligence, and Wolfgang was a strong chess player by age 8.

By the mid-1930s, the Jewish family knew that their careers and perhaps their lives were at risk if they remained in Germany. Erwin accepted teaching posts at Columbia University and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J.

Rather than undergoing the stress of integrating into a new high school, both brothers enrolled at Princeton. Wolfgang was 15 and chose to study physics, mathematics and Latin because they involved less written work in English, graduating with a degree in physics in four years.

Upon graduation, he was accepted to graduate school at Columbia and Caltech, but chose the latter, because of his interest in seeing a new part of the country and his receipt of a long letter from physicist Robert Millikan telling him about life at the school.

He balanced a heavy course load with teaching duties.

He and Carl Anderson hurriedly wrote a textbook on electricity and optics for sophomores to replace an out-of-date Millikan text. It was never published but was used at Caltech throughout World War II.

By his second year, he was a member of physicist Jesse DuMond’s lab, where he absorbed DuMond’s maxim that a good physicist should be able to do everything for himself from scratch, especially constructing equipment.

DuMond had designed a complicated X-ray spectrometer that had sophisticated components scattered throughout the building, but it took Panofsky’s administrative skills to bring it into operation -- charting a course that he would follow for the rest of his career. After graduation, he married DuMond’s 18-year-old daughter, Adele.

He received his doctorate in 1942 but found himself classified as an “enemy alien” under California’s new enemy exclusion law. He had to register and be home before curfew, and could travel no more than five miles from his residence. Nonetheless, he taught evening classes in classical mechanics and electronics to military personnel before Millikan paved his way to becoming a naturalized citizen.

Panofsky worked on other war projects, including an aerial camera for tracking moving targets and a “firing error indicator” for measuring the proximity of bullets to targets.

He subsequently became a consultant to the Manhattan Project for producing the atomic bomb, developing devices that were used to measure the yields, or power, of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

He observed the first “Trinity” nuclear explosion from a B-29 airplane 10,000 feet from the blast.

After the war, he took a position at UC’s Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. Among his studies there, he and Jack Steinberger were the first to isolate the neutral pi meson -- one of the subatomic particles predicted by theorists to account for the strong force binding atomic nuclei -- determining its charge and mass. He also took part in the design of the laboratory’s Bevatron and electron synchrotron, as well as E.O. Lawrence’s controversial “Materials Testing Accelerator.”

The campus climate changed in 1951 when the conservative California Legislature and the university’s Board of Regents ordered that all faculty sign an oath of loyalty, which many believed required faculty to obey the regents.

Panofsky signed but insisted that the rights of non-signers be protected and objected to their firing. Eventually, he decided to resign in protest and, turning down offers from Columbia, Princeton and MIT, moved to Stanford.

Panofsky’s role in developing the atomic bomb profoundly influenced his thinking on the ethical and social responsibilities of scientists. During the Cold War, he helped to secure the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty during the Kennedy administration and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.

He served as a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee in the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations and helped found Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

He also forged strong scientific relations with physicists in Russia and China through direct scientific exchange and collaboration, helping to bring those nations into the international scientific community.

His autobiography, “Panofsky on Physics, Politics and Peace: Pief Remembers,” will be released next week.

The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center has scheduled a memorial service for noon Friday.

Panofsky is survived by his wife of 65 years, Adele; his stepmother, Gerda, of Princeton; three sons, Richard Jacob of Rehoboth, Mass., Edward Frank of La Honda, Calif., and Steven Thomas of Ukiah, Calif.; two daughters, Margaret Ann Panofsky of New York and Carol Eleanor Panofsky of Santa Cruz; 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.