Logo IMG


Life of Pief

Silvan S. Schweber

Panofsky on Physics, Politics and Peace: Pief Remembers. Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky. 191 pp. Springer, 2007. $69.95.

Panofsky on Physics, Politics and Peace is an autobiographical essay by a remarkable man. In it Wolfgang "Pief" Panofsky re­lates highlights of his professional life: his accomplishments as a scientist, as a teacher, as the director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC, the great high-energy laboratory he built), and as an adviser to those making science, technology and weapons policy at both the national and the international level. He devotes little attention to his family life, but it comes across clearly that his marriage was a partnership in which he and his wife helped each other grow.

Wolfgang "Pief" Panofsky at age 4Click to Enlarge ImagePanofsky was born in Berlin in 1919, the second child of Erwin and Dorothea Panofsky. Pief's maternal grandfather, Albert Mosse, was a jurist who reached the highest position possible for a Jew in the Prussian judicial system and helped the Japanese government write its constitution and code of laws after the Meiji restoration. Albert's brother Rudolf was the publisher of the Berliner Tageblatt, Berlin's leading newspaper.

Pief's father was the most eminent art historian of his generation. But with Hitler's accession to power and the passage of laws barring Jews from holding positions in the civil service, Erwin Panofsky was dismissed from his professorship at the University of Hamburg. He then accepted a tenured position at New York University, where he had been a visiting professor earlier, and the Panofskys emigrated to the United States in 1934. Princeton University offered Erwin free housing and free tuition at the university for his sons, so for a year he taught concurrently at both Princeton and NYU. In 1935 he accepted a professorship in the Institute for Advanced Study in Prince­ton, and he was on the faculty of its School of History for the rest of his life.

Pief entered Princeton University at the age of 15, graduating in 1938 with highest honors. He then accepted a fellowship in physics at the California Institute of Technology, where he obtained his Ph.D. in 1942. For his dissertation he used x rays to measure h/e, the ratio of Planck's constant to the charge of the electron, with great precision. He carried out this research under the supervision of Jesse W. DuMond. Pief won not just the admiration of DuMond but the love of his daughter Adèle, whom he married on completing his doctorate.

Events of World War II redirected much of the research at Caltech toward practical ends. Working with DuMond, Panofsky developed a "firing error indicator," a shock wave sensor that could accurately detect and measure the shock waves produced by supersonic bullets and determine the distance by which a bullet missed its target. He also began teaching physics courses to high-ranking military officers and to engineers working in defense industries. The firing error indicator proved to be so successful a device that in 1944 J. Robert Oppenheimer asked Panofsky to join Luis Alvarez's team at Los Alamos to adapt the indicator to measure shock waves from nuclear explosions and thus gauge their intensity.

What impressed Panofsky most deeply at Los Alamos was the way Oppenheimer had organized the laboratory: Even though it was a military site, information was not compartmentalized; everyone who had the appropriate badge to work with classified information was invited to attend the general colloquia discussing progress on the bombs. So the people working there had the feeling that they were actively contributing to the effort, and—at least until Hiroshima and Nagasaki—they were proud of what they had together accomplished. Panofsky later transplanted that organizational structure to SLAC: All of the people involved with the running of the accelerators and detectors, whether scientists, engineers or administrative staff members, were enjoined to attend the colloquia and were made to feel an integral part of the running of the laboratory and responsible for its success.

At Los Alamos, Panofsky was introduced to nuclear weaponry and began a lifelong friendship with Alvarez, even though the two of them differed sharply on issues relating to the further development of nuclear weapons. After the war, Alvarez got Panofsky to accept a position at the University of California's Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), where he became a high-energy physicist. Shortly after coming to the Berkeley laboratory, Panofsky joined the physics department at the university and quickly rose to the rank of associate professor in view of his dedicated teaching and his outstanding research—he clarified the properties of pi mesons, and in collaboration with Jack Steinberger he confirmed the existence of the neutral pion and its decay into two photons.

Panofsky%20and%20family%20move%20to%20Stanford%20UniversityClick to Enlarge ImageIn 1951 a loyalty oath was imposed on all University of California faculty members. Panofsky, although he was willing to sign the oath, felt that being required to do so made the situation intolerable. Together with a number of other physicists, he resigned his Berkeley appointments and accepted a faculty position at Stanford. He also assumed the directorship of Stanford's High Energy Physics Laboratory (now the W. W. Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory), which operated an electron linear accelerator, and he proceeded to develop such accelerators into powerful research tools.

After World War II, physicists in the United States, because of their expertise and by virtue of their contributions to the war effort, acquired some measure of power and became influential as advisers to the government. Oppenheimer became the paradigmatic figure in this regard. His technical knowledge and his relations to institutions made it possible for him to intervene in affairs of state. And because the nuclear threat affected the fate of the world, he could also assume the mantle of the intellectual whose discourse is that of the universal. He was representative of the sense of responsibility that physicists had acquired during the war.

However, it was not Oppenheimer but people such as Leo Szilard, Hans Bethe, Victor Weisskopf, Philip Morrison, Robert Wilson and Pief Panofsky who became the role models for an entire generation of scientists. They were outstanding researchers and concerned citizens who constantly addressed the issue of what the responsibilities of the scientist should be to humankind and the planet. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists became the voice of their concerns.

Each of them had strong personal views on how to contain the threat of nuclear weapons: Some refused to work on such implements of mass destruction, whereas others were willing to do so in order to have the opportunity to advise competently and wisely within the corridors of power. They all became politically engaged to try to prevent any military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that might escalate into World War III. The physicists' primary concern was nuclear weapons, and biologists such as Salvador Luria and Matthew Meselson focused on biological and chemical weapons.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the views and recommendations of scientific communities and of scientists (as civil servants or consultants) were important to policy makers dealing with matters ranging from weapons systems and space exploration to the environment and public health. Under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, the President's Science Advisory Committee was highly influential in limiting antiballistic-missile systems and in getting the United States and the Soviet Union to sign the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

Panofsky was an important contributor to these developments. Starting in the mid-1950s, he served on numerous panels evaluating high-energy physics programs on behalf of the National Science Foundation and other institutions such as the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. In 1955, he was asked by Guyford Stever, who was Chief Scientist for the Air Force and had been at Caltech with Panofsky, to join a special panel of the Air Force Science Advisory Board charged with investigating possible defenses against the delivery of nuclear weapons into the United States. This involvement led to Panofsky being asked in 1958 to chair a panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee on the detection of nuclear test explosions in outer space.

Edward Teller had come up with schemes for clandestine testing that conceivably might evade or violate the limits that American and Soviet experts had agreed on. In one such scenario, the violator would send up one space vehicle carrying a nuclear explosive, and another transporting the detection and diagnostic instrumentation, to a place where the explosion would be hidden by the moon. Another evasion technique advanced by Teller required the digging of a very large underground hole so that the shock waves of a nuclear explosion would only produce elastic distortions in the walls of the cavity, decreasing by a large factor the recorded seismic magnitude. The panel Panofsky chaired included both Teller and Bethe, who initially held opposing views, yet it succeeded in issuing a unanimous report concluding that any technical evasion would be detectable.

Because of that success, in 1959 Panofsky was asked to lead the delegation that was to negotiate with the Soviets regarding the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space. The negotiations at the technical level were successful and made possible the 1963 treaty, which banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater and in space. Subsequently agreement was reached on banning nuclear explosions exceeding 150 kilotons in yield. Because of Panofsky's stature as a scientist, the respect with which he was by then regarded both nationally and internationally, and his commitment to a peaceful and secure future, he was appointed to the President's Science Advisory Committee, serving from 1961 to 1964.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon disbanded the Science Advisory Committee. Panofsky continued working intensely for international scientific cooperation and for arms limitations through other channels: the National Academy of Sciences, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, the Committee on International Security and Arms Control, and the wide network of his personal friendships. Building trust and understanding between American, Russian and Chinese scientists became increasingly important to him, and he did that wearing many different hats: For example, he was a member of an official scientific delegation that visited the Novosibirsk high-energy physics laboratory in the Soviet Union in 1975, and in the 1980s he became a scientific and technical adviser for the Beijing ­Electron/Positron Collider. Many of the photos in the book indicate the extent and the intensity of these activities.

A good deal of this memoir is devoted to Panofsky's directorship of SLAC and to the laboratory's scientific accomplishments. The successes of SLAC—and they are considerable—were due to the way Panofsky ran the laboratory and to the collegial atmosphere he created there.

Pief%20and%20Ad%E8le%20PanofskyClick to Enlarge ImageIn the book, Panofsky narrates straightforwardly the difficulties he initially encountered in establishing SLAC and in making it an academic research facility controlled by Stanford rather than a national laboratory like Argonne, which is managed only in part by the University of Chicago. He describes forthrightly how the physics department at Stanford originally limited the prerogatives of SLAC professors: They were not allowed to teach courses, nor were they able to supervise doctoral dissertations without the department's prior approval. Panofksy also tells how those constraints were overcome.

Although he gradually became less and less directly involved in carrying out experiments, Panofsky took great pride in having made sure that increasingly sensitive and accurate detectors with specific functions were designed and built simultaneously with each improvement of the accelerators and colliders. And the same was true of the computers necessary to implement the desired detections.

Panofsky comments perspicaciously on what made SLAC so successful and on the need for global cooperation and support nowadays in the field of high-energy physics. His insights on what went wrong with the Superconducting Super Collider are also well worth noting. In his view, the project's failure was a tragedy very much connected with the greatly changed character of the relation between the government and scientists: The partnership that existed during and after World War II has been replaced by a government-contractor relationship that features expanded government control over every aspect of a project and requires compliance with orders and regulations rather than accountability.

Panofsky's book, published a few weeks after his death in September 2007, ends on a somber note. Panofsky was deeply concerned by the fact that independent scientific and technological advice was playing an ever-smaller role in governmental policies. More particularly, he was deeply disturbed by the actions of the administration of George W. Bush, which disbanded many governmental scientific advisory bodies and replaced a large fraction of the members of the still-existing ones with people who were drawn from the industrial scientific community and were therefore (presumably) less independent than scientists in the academy. The Bush administration also gave political considerations priority over all other factors, including scientific realities, and did so at a time when science and technology have become paramount in making possible our economic and social well-being.

Panofsky surely recognized fairly early on that the partnership between the government and scientists that had existed during World War II was terminated shortly thereafter, with the state and the armed forces reassuming control over the determination of the weapon systems to be developed. The outcome of the Oppenheimer trial made this shift abundantly clear. But the state continued to support high-energy activities lavishly for a host of reasons—the Cold War, the development of new instruments and computers, the training of extremely competent pure and applied scientists and engineers. And SLAC was one of the beneficiaries of this policy.

Only further examination of Panofsky's papers will reveal the extent of his recognition of how deeply things changed after the 1970s. There are hints—in his discussion of Star Wars and hafnium bombs—that his earlier optimism waned. Nonetheless, his belief that scientific cooperation can be a model for cooperation and trust in other areas gave him hope that the United States, China, India, Japan and Russia would ultimately find ways to live peacefully with one another and to cooperate in solving the world's problems.

He doesn't say so here, but Panofsky was surely aware that present conditions are not conducive to the production of outstanding scientists who are also deeply concerned for the well­being of the nation, the human species and the planet. Bethe, Weisskopf, Wilson and Panofsky were responsible for creating an environment that nurtured such people as Sidney Drell, Henry Kendall and Kurt Gottfried—eminent people who could influence both fellow scientists and the public at large. But who is nurturing this essential tradition now?

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: On the Origin of Origin Stories

Book Review: O Pioneer

Book Excerpt: Cypherpunks Write Code

Subscribe to American Scientist