Life Remembered: 'A true giant in the field of physics'

Life Remembered: 'A true giant in the field of physics'

URBANA — If anyone ever had a full life, it was Ned Goldwasser.

A "giant" in the world of physics, co-founder of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and former University of Illinois vice chancellor who charmed friends and colleagues around the world, Mr. Goldwasser died Wednesday at the age of 97.

His research on subatomic particles helped solve puzzles about what holds a nucleus together and why there were so many neutrons in cosmic rays coming to Earth. He met with presidents and traveled to China, Russia and across the globe representing international scientific committees.

But he was a family man first, always making time for Chutes and Ladders with his children or jetting off to Europe to celebrate anniversaries with his beloved wife of 76 years, Liza Weiss Goldwasser.

He rode his bike daily, played tennis into his 80s and swam several times a week into his 90s. He continued to attend UI lectures until very recently, sitting in the front row with fellow retired physicist Leland Holloway so they could nudge each other if one dozed off.

"Ned was just a wonderful, wonderful man, a very hard worker, very smart. He knew this university inside and out — a man of real quality," said former UI chancellor Morton Weir. "They almost broke the mold, I'm afraid."

A native New Yorker, Mr. Goldwasser studied physics at Harvard University, where he was also on the swim team. He was in college when he first met Liza Weiss, then a freshman at Vassar. She and Ned had grown up within 10 blocks of each other on the west side of Manhattan but had never met.

Their first real date came in September 1939, when Ned invited Lizie to take a spontaneous drive to Maine. By the time they arrived, war had been declared in Europe. They were married Oct. 27, 1940, a few months after he graduated from Harvard.

His father had hoped Ned would follow him into business, a career he had adopted after first working as a teacher and principal. But Ned wanted to do something he loved.

His first job out of college was as a civilian physicist in the Navy. He was assigned to the San Francisco Bay area to install defensive devices on ships to protect them from powerful magnetic mines developed by the Germans.

After the war he decided to get his doctoral degree in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, working with cosmic rays. He was invited by two nuclear physicists to join their research team but didn't pass the security review required to use the particle accelerator lab at Berkeley.

It was the McCarthy era, and the work was considered top secret. Ned had given money to an anti-fascist committee and worked with a group of scientists — some with communist ties — who had donated their expertise to small factories supplying U.S. forces with war materials.

Later, as a postdoctoral researcher, Mr. Goldwasser was offered a faculty position at Berkeley after a number of professors left in protest over a state loyalty oath required of faculty. With three children, he needed the job, but decided to see what else he could find.

He contacted the UI, where he had turned down a job the previous year, and was told a position was still available. The physics department was "very welcoming," no loyalty oath required, and he accepted.

It was 1951. The couple fell in love with Champaign-Urbana and raised five children here — Mike, a Peace Corps alum and now a cattle farmer in Virginia; John, a math professor at the University of West Virginia; Kathy, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis; David, a veterinarian in upstate New York (whose son, Ben, co-founded the rock band MGMT); and Rick, a tennis instructor and photographer in Flagstaff, Ariz.

In 1968, he took a 10-year leave from the UI to become deputy director of the Fermilab in Batavia. Mr. Goldwasser was instrumental in security funding for the high-energy physics lab, persuading President Lyndon Johnson that Midwestern universities could graduate more physicists if the region had a facility where the brightest scientists could do their research. He also got Johnson to choose Illinois over Wisconsin for the project. The lab has led to major discoveries in medicine and the understanding of matter, energy and the origins of the universe.

His own research, in particle physics, was highlighted by his work with pi mesons, or pions, subatomic particles that helped explain nuclear force. But he and his colleagues felt his biggest contribution was as a scientific organizer, bringing together researchers to work on experiments and "grease the wheels to make it go," as he once put it.

"He's a great administrator. He gets things done by reasoned arguments and he keeps his cool," Holloway added. "He interacts well with people, and he's damn smart."

And he had a sense of humor. When Fermilab opened, Director Robert Wilson took security badge No. 1. Mr. Goldwasser, as second in command, could have chosen No. 2, but instead chose No. 007, said UI physicist and Associate Dean Kevin Pitts, who did research years later at Fermilab (as badge No. 10,700).

"In my book he was a true giant in the field of physics," Pitts said. "And on top of that, of course, he was a fantastic person. I just thought the world of Ned. What a full and amazing life."

In 1978, Mr. Goldwasser returned to the UI as dean of the Graduate College and vice chancellor for research, hired by Chancellor William Gerberding and Weir, then vice chancellor for academic affairs. The following year both Gerberding and Weir left the UI.

"Ned never quite forgave us for bailing out on him," Weir said.

In what he called "one of the stupidest decisions of my life," Mr. Goldwasser agreed to serve as both vice chancellor for research and vice chancellor for academic affairs. That arrangement lasted for one year, when Mr. Goldwasser resigned from the research position. He continued as vice chancellor for academic affairs until his retirement in 1986.

In his view, one of his chief accomplishments was saving University High School. Mr. Goldwasser had asked the College of Education to trim several hundred thousand dollars; the college decided to close Uni High and instructed stunned students to look for another school. Mr. Goldwasser decided his office would take over administration of the school, arguing that it was important to the UI's ability to attract top faculty.

"His hallmark was integrity," Weir said. "He was just amazing. Nothing escaped him. Internal campus politics didn't matter to him. He was always a real straight arrow.

"He made a lot of tough decisions in his time, but everybody respected him so much, even if a decision went against you, you knew he must have a good reason for doing it," Weir said.

Mr. Goldwasser also worked hard to secure research funding for faculty; revived an honors program for undergraduates that had been dormant for years; stepped up minority hiring at both the UI and Fermilab; and created a spousal hiring program to help the campus with faculty recruitment.

He also had "an enormous interest in the arts," Weir said, supporting the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and "things he thought made a real difference and made the university great."

Mr. Goldwasser loved the international aspects of physics, where scientists from all over the world worked on similar problems to try to understand how the world worked.

He was proud that, during the Cold War, he persuaded President Richard Nixon to allow scientific exchanges with Soviet physicists at Fermilab. As he told the story, the first year, the Russians came with a "commissar" to look over their shoulder. The next year, they came alone. The year after that, they brought their spouses, and the next, their children.

"That's the way the world should work," Mr. Goldwasser said in a 2011 interview.

But he also had to stand up to the Soviets, who once refused to invite the recommended number of Israeli physicists to an international physics meeting in Tblisi. Mr. Goldwasser, who headed the organizing committee, threatened to cancel the meeting, and the Soviets backed down.

Holloway, who has known Mr. Goldwasser for 30 years, said he continued to come to department talks and colloquia up until recently, and never lost a beat mentally.

When Holloway taught a short course last year for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Mr. Goldwasser sat in the front row to "correct me from time to time when I would make mistakes," he said. "He was an incredible guy."

Mr. Goldwasser's health had declined just recently, but he was able to have "wonderful farewells" with each of his five children, Lizie Goldwasser said. "He just said, 'I've had a wonderful life. I've been very fortunate,'" she said.

"He really loved his life, he loved his family, he loved his work. What more could you ask?"

The family has received "millions" of sympathy messages from around the world, she said.

"We had a wonderful life together for 76 years," she said. "I feel very, very fortunate."

They plan to celebrate his life together over the holidays and hold a memorial service at a later date, she said.

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pattsi wrote on December 17, 2016 at 10:12 am

A giant of an intellect who never strayed from his principles.

annabellissimo wrote on December 17, 2016 at 2:12 pm

When someone extraordinary leaves us, we feel bereft even if we never met that person. Today I read in the New York Times about the death of Ken Hechler, another extraordinary person and now, closer to home, the passing of Ned Goldwasser, a person who will be missed in science, at the University of Illinois and in Champaign-Urbana. We can be glad that such figures come to our attention and may help us all become better people by their example, even while feeling sad at their passing.