Obituary: Acclaimed Physicist Lincoln Wolfenstein Had Passions for Science, Peace and Family
Lincoln Wolfenstein, an internationally acclaimed theoretical particle physicist, particularly in the area of weak interactions and elementary particles, died Friday, March 27 in Oakland, Calif., of cancer. He was 92.
Wolfenstein received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1949 and taught for 52 years at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) until his retirement in 2000. Even after retirement he continued to go to his office almost every day, teach classes and remain active in the international world of physics. Following his relocation to Oakland, Calif., in 2014, he began going to the Lawrence Berkeley Lab weekly until four weeks before his death.
“Lincoln was far more than just a great scientist. He was the quintessential faculty member, dedicated to his research, an inspiration to students, a passionate thinker about the human condition and devoted to his university. He will be missed,” said Stephen Garoff, professor of physics and head of the Department of Physics at Carnegie Mellon.
Elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1978, he was the recipient of the Bruno Pontecorvo Prize in 2005 and the American Physical Society’s J.J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics in 1992. He is most well known for his contributions to the understanding of neutrinos, particularly his 1978 article “Neutrino Oscillations in Matter,” which proposed that oscillations of neutrinos in matter would be different from oscillations in a vacuum. Two Russian scientists applied this theory to the problem of missing solar neutrinos and this became known as the Mikheyev-Smirnov-Wolfenstein (MSW) effect in particle physics.
Wolfenstein was much more than an accomplished scientist. His passion for peace led him to a lifetime of political activism, particularly against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He argued that no nation should have nuclear weapons in its military arsenal, an argument he made cogently in many articles and in courses that he taught at CMU. He was a founding member of the original Pittsburgh SANE (Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy) and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. In 1986, Wolfenstein was awarded the New Person Award by the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh for his work in pursuit of nuclear disarmament. He led a lifetime of advocating for responsible science as well as for individual rights and liberties.
Wolfenstein had a love for travel and a knack for combining voyages with work. He was one of the founding members of the Aspen Center for Physics and he frequently spent time at the CERN lab in Geneva, Switzerland. In addition to these varied accomplishments, Wolfenstein had a remarkable ability to communicate. He could delight and entertain a baby with the same ease and joy that he showed when working with his colleagues. Equally comfortable with colleagues, undergraduate students and the general public, he not only taught graduate courses, but also introductory physics courses as well as continuing education courses.
Wolfenstein was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1923. Above all else, he was devoted to his family and he delighted in being surrounded by his children and grandchildren. He and Wilma, his wife of 58 years, relocated from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., in 2014 to be closer to family. He and Wilma shared a deep and beautiful love, as all who saw them together can testify. Wilma passed away shortly after her husband’s death.
Predeceased by his daughter Fran Tribe (Al), he also is survived by his children: Leonard Wolfenstein (Jan) of Annandale, Va.; Mimi Pizey (Jon) of Kennebunk, Maine; Donna Caplin (Mark) of El Cerrito, Calif.; David Caplin of El Sobrante, Calif.; nine grandchildren, Josh Tribe, Meredith Caplin (Giovany), Jessica Tribe Friedrich (Jason), Gabriel Pickus (Shira), Ben and Noah Wolfenstein, Chloe, Ian and Alex Pizey; and two great-grandchildren Zach and Mia Friedrich.
A memorial service will be planned for later in the year. The family requests that donations in Wolfenstein’s memory be made to the Ploughshares Fund (ploughshares.org) or the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research (pancreatic.org).
See also his obituary in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.