Remembering Gerry Brown

My father, Gerry Brown, passed away yesterday. He had been convalescent for some time, so this was not entirely unexpected, but it sure is final when it happens.

Gerry was a fairly well known physicist. His Wikipedia page gives a pretty good summary of his professional life, and I am sure there will be an obit somewhere. I'll post any I see in the comments below.

I've set up an information page to let interested people know what's going on.

Gerry lived a long and, I think, mostly fulfilling life. As I mentioned in my post on mentoring, he trained almost 100 PhD students during his career (apparently he served as the advisor for 72 PhD exams!); he was also a member of the National Academy, edited several journals, and played a big part in physics -- especially nuclear physics and astrophysics -- for many, many years. One of the most surprising things to realize, as he fell more ill & I started to delve into his scientific affairs, at the same time as I myself entered the professoriate, was just how much he had done; he was already quite well known (e.g. a member of the National Academy) in the 60s, and his files were fascinating reading. As I tried to help my mother with mail, the daily deluge of papers, journals, invitations, personal mails, etc was both awe inspiring and just plain stunning. He was still going full blast right up until serious illness stopped him.

In many ways, the Gerry I knew was his work, and I almost completely missed the chance to talk with him about politics or non-scientific ideas. I came along late in his life, as part of his second family -- I have siblings who are quite a bit older than me -- and I never saw the politically passionate person that he had been in his youth. Only once I got old enough to speak with him as an adult -- and got wise enough to want to talk to my father ;) -- did I start to understand how much the McCarthy era had cost him (hint: his first family was not American). Just before he fell ill, he made reference to the powerful disillusioning impact that his experience during the Peekskill Riots (I think) had on his political interests. For this alone I would have liked to know him better. His stories on Cold War visits to East Germany, which came with attempts by the Stasi to recruit him, were fascinating; he also had a few colorful anecdotes about joining the Navy towards the end of WWII, and I bet there was quite a bit I didn't hear, and now never will.

He went through several dark periods in his life, many due to financial hardships. As a result, he placed great priority on supporting and enabling his children with financial help at the right moment. I, for one, did not acknowledge this enough.

My father shaped both my personal life and my professional life quite a bit, of course. I interacted quite a bit with senior faculty from a very early age, which might help explain some of my attitudes towards the Game of Tenure. I got my entree into research through some of these contacts, too, and my father's reputation continues to serve me in my own career: nepotism, of a sort. My entree into biology came as a result of interactions with Chris Adami and Steve Koonin, as well as a conversation with Hans Bethe -- all people I knew through my father. The intuitive and phenomenological approach he took bears a strong resemblance to how I prefer to do research. And, increasingly, it looks like several of his grandchildren inherited some of his mathematical skills, which should lead to interesting times ahead.

The two pieces about his life that I most wish to see made public are these: first, the chapter by Sabine Lee entitled "What is the Universe? Gerry Brown -- His Life and Work"; and second, "Three Weeks with Hans Bethe" by Chris Adami, which is a journal of three weeks that Chris spent with Gerry and Hans Bethe in 1992. (Hans passed away in 2005.) There is also a small autobiographical sketch entitled "Fly with Eagles" that I can't find online; it's Gerry's account of his interactions with Gregory Breit, Rudolf Peierls, and Hans Bethe, three of the great physicists of the 20th century. The first two pieces are available in the book, From Nuclei to Stars: Festschrift in Honor of Gerald E. Brown.

In many ways, Gerry was a giant -- in the lives of his children; in the lives of his students, collaborators, and colleagues; and in the subfields of physics where he worked. He will be missed by many.

Gerry is survived by his wife, four natural children, his ex-wife, two step-children, and seven grandchildren, as well as several hundred academic "offspring".


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