Marvin Goldberger dies at 92; physicist served as Caltech president


Marvin L. “Murph” Goldberger, a prominent physicist who as Caltech’s fifth president substantially enlarged the prestige and endowment of the Pasadena institution, including launching the construction of the powerful Keck I telescope in Hawaii, died of cancer Wednesday in La Jolla. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his son Joel.

Goldberger, who began his career during World War II as a particle physicist with the top-secret Manhattan Project, was teaching at Princeton University when he was named Caltech president in 1978.

During his nine-year tenure, he oversaw the doubling of Caltech’s endowment with major gifts that included a record-breaking $70-million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation in 1985. That gift, which made Goldberger the envy of colleges and universities nationwide, spurred the development of the Keck Observatory, which houses the world’s two largest telescopes for probing the universe.


Goldberger also played an instrumental role in attracting a $40-million gift from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to establish the Beckman Institute, devoted to developing technology for research in biology and chemistry.

“Murph was a man whose excitement about physics was contagious, and his enjoyment of life and caring for individuals deeply felt,” Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum said in a statement. “He held to a vision to push the institute to new heights of discovery and educational distinction.”

Goldberger also oversaw a restructuring of the curriculum, including increasing humanities offerings in an effort to produce well-rounded scientists with an understanding of the ethical issues raised by technology.

“In the use of science what we are really dealing with is values,” Goldberger, who became a vocal advocate of arms control after the devastation caused by nuclear weaponry in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, told the Los Angeles Times in 1981.

The son of a real estate broker, Goldberger was born in Chicago on Oct. 22, 1922. His mother nicknamed him Molsh, which childhood friends turned into Murph.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh in 1943. While serving in the Army he was assigned to the atomic bomb-building Manhattan Project, headquartered at the University of Chicago, where he worked under renowned physicists Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller. He earned a doctorate in physics at the University of Chicago in 1948.


He was one of the Manhattan Project’s youngest members, along with Mildred Ginsburg, a math whiz who later worked as an economist. Constantly thrown together because of the classified nature of their work, their marriage was practically arranged: When the project was set to move its operations to Los Alamos, N.M., “a senior member said to us, ‘I’m not going to take you two with us if you don’t get married,’” Mildred recalled in a 1979 interview with The Times. They were married in 1945.

Mildred Goldberger died in 2006. Besides son Joel, Goldberger is survived by son Sam and three grandchildren.

He joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1950, where he remained for seven years before becoming a professor of physics and mathematics at Princeton University. He spent two decades at Princeton, including six years as chair of the physics department, from 1970 to 1976.

Shortly after joining Princeton, he helped found an elite group of scientists called the Jasons to advise the Pentagon on defense technologies, including nuclear weapons and ballistic missile defense. He was its first chairman, serving for six years starting in 1959.

Conceived in part to nurture a new generation of science advisors, it was named by Goldberger’s wife, who said the group reminded her of the Greek myth about Jason and the Argonauts — “bright young men going out to save the world,” Goldberger recalled in a 2002 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Goldberger said the Jasons, which meets annually in La Jolla, filled a vital role, with one notable exception. The group earned some notoriety in the 1970s after the New York Times’ reports on the highly classified Pentagon Papers revealed a controversial proposal developed during Goldberger’s tenure to create a system of land mines and microphones — a so-called electronic battlefield. The scientists’ intention was to prevent the wholesale bombing of North Vietnam, but that turned out to be a naïve calculation.

“We genuinely thought that we had an idea that was technically sound, that would lower the temperature of the war … and we got taken to the cleaners,” Goldberger said in a 1986 oral history for the American Institute of Physics.

At Caltech he was known for his informality and sense of fun. For the 100th birthday of Caltech idol Albert Einstein, Goldberger rode an elephant on campus.

He left Caltech to become director of the Institute for Advanced Study, the Princeton, N.J., think tank that had been home to such luminaries as Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Goldberger held that post from 1987 to 1991, when he moved to UCLA to teach physics. He spent his last years at UC San Diego, where he was dean of the school of natural sciences from 1994 to 1999.

Twitter: @ewooLATimes