Renowned Israeli Physicist, Who Founded Dimona Nuclear Research Facility, Dies at 94

Amercian-born Prof. Zvi (Harry) Lipkin developed a radar that helped the U.S. seek and destroy German subs during World War II.

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Prize-winning physicist Prof. Zvi Lipkin.
Prize-winning physicist Prof. Zvi Lipkin. Credit: Courtesty of Emet Prize

Prof. Zvi Lipkin, one of Israel’s leading physicists and a key figure in establishing the Dimona nuclear research facility, died at the age of 94 in Rehovot on Tuesday night.

Lipkin, who was professor emeritus at the Weizmann Institute of Science and one of the founders of its physics department, was world renowned in the field of nuclear physics and elementary particle physics. A member of the Israeli Academy of Humanities and Sciences, he won several prestigious awards, including the Wigner Medal, the Weizmann Prize, the Rothschild Prize and the Emet Prize.

He was born in New York as Harry J. Lipkin. He received a B.A. in electrical engineering from Cornell and went on to do his PhD at Princeton, where he began his studies in nuclear physics. He was the roommate of celebrated mathematician John Nash, who recently died in a car crash.

Lipkin’s exceptional abilities went beyond academia, as the U.S. army rushed to use his services.

“He was a very colorful character, a man of broad horizons and exceptional thinking,” Prof. Marek Karliner of Tel Aviv University, who knew Lipkin well and published nearly 30 articles with him, told Haaretz.

A secret project that Lipkin led played an important role in World War II. He developed a radar that allowed U.S. army forces to discover and destroy German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. Lipkin immigrated to Israel in 1950 as part of a Hashomer HaTzair group that was supposed to settle Kibbutz Sasa in the Upper Galilee. However, when he arrived at Haifa port, security establishment representatives informed him that he would not be proceeding to the kibbutz because he was needed for an important mission. In the wake of a decision to establish the Dimona nuclear research center, Lipkin was one of two Israeli physicists sent to France for three years (1953-55) to acquire the knowledge necessary to set up a nuclear reactor.

In 1956 Lipkin co-founded the Weizmann Institute's department of particle physics and astrophysics, along with Israeli physicists Amos de-Shalit, Igal Talmi (both Israel Prize winners) and others. The deparment was launched in a celebratory ceremony attended by nuclear VIPs from abroad such as Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the American atomic bomb, and Wolfgang Pauli, the Austrian Nobel Laureate in physics who is considered one of the fathers of quantum mechanics.

Lipkin’s career in particle physics took off from this point. He was one of the world pioneers in utilizing group theory, which later on was used widely in physics and computer science.

In addition to his substantial scientific achievements, he is recalled for his exceptional sense of humor and his activism. In 1968, Lipkin co-founded a satirical science magazine, Journal of Irreproducible Results, together with virologist Alexander Kohn. He was also active on behalf of refuseniks who were not allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. He often visited Soviet countries using his American passport.

Likewise, he was active in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs – an international organization that brought together nuclear physicist to work behind the scenes toward nuclear disarmament agreements, mainly between the United States and the USSR.

He is survived by his wife Malka, a daughter, a son and one grandchild.

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