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2010: A Physicist Who Explained the Puzzles of the Universe Dies

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Gerson Goldhaber, particle physicist turned astrophysicist: from antiprotons to dark matter, he was there. Pictured at his desk at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He was also co-recipient of the 1991 W.K.H. Panofsky Prize of the American Physical Society for the discovery of charmed mesons.
Gerson Goldhaber, particle physicist turned astrophysicist: from antiprotons to dark matter, he was there.Credit: Berkeley, Wikimedia Commons

On July 19, 2010, Gerson Goldhaber -- a particle physicist turned astrophysicist, whose scientific discoveries ranged from identifying some of the smallest subatomic particles in the universe, to providing evidence that the universe itself was expanding, at a time when most scientists believed that the opposite was the case – died, at age 86.

In at least two cases, senior colleagues of Goldhaber’s won Nobel Prizes for discoveries in which he played key roles, though he too received substantial recognition for his work over the years.

Gerson Goldhaber was born on February 20, 1924, in Chemnitz, Germany, where his family ran a silk-processing mill. Both of his parents, Charles Goldhaber and the former Ethel Frisch, had been born in the Ukrainian city of Kolomya.

The father Charles, born Chaim Shaia, had taken off from home at age 14. Wandering by foot and then by sea, he had ended up in Egypt. There, bit by the archaeology bug, he became a guide in the Cairo Museum. Each year, however, he returned to his parents’ home for Passover, and it was on one of those visits that he met Ethel. Instead of returning to Cairo, he stayed and married her, in 1909.

By the time they moved to Chemnitz in 1920, the couple already had three children (another of whom, Maurice Goldhaber, also grew up to be an important physicist in his own right). After the rise of the Nazis, in 1933, they fled Germany and went to Egypt, where Charles set up a tour guide service.

His brother bets against Gerson

Gerson came to Jerusalem in 1942 to attend the Hebrew University, where he received a master’s in physics in 1947, the same year his parents and a brother also came to Palestine. While at the university, Gerson met and married Sulamith Loew, a chemistry student. Together they went to the University of Wisconsin to pursue their doctorates. Some years later, Sulamith switched to physics and began collaborating with Gerson in his research.

Gerson’s doctoral thesis, which he completed in 1950, dealt with a method of using photographic emulsions to trace the motion of subatomic particles in various high-energy experiments.

After teaching briefly at Columbia University, Goldhaber took a position at the University of California, Berkeley, while working simultaneously at the Radiation Laboratory (later the Lawrence Berkeley Lab) there.

It was at Berkeley in 1955 that a team to which Goldhaber belonged used the photo-emulsion method to prove the existence of the antiproton. That is the subatomic counterpoint to the positively charged proton, and today we take it for granted but until then, it had been inscrutable. (In fact, Gerson’s brother Maurice, who became head of the Brookhaven physics laboratory near New York, had bet a colleague of his $500 that the antiproton did not exist, a wager he lost.)

The discovery of the antiproton earned team leaders Owen Chamberlain and Emilio G. Segre the Nobel in physics in 1959.

Amos meson, we almost knew ye

During the decades that followed, Goldhaber was involved in the discovery of a number of other subatomic particles, which he liked to name for both his own and colleagues’ family members: The A meson, for example, identified in 1960, was named for his son Amos.

In 1965, while the couple was attending a conference in India, Sulamith died, as the result of a previously unidentified brain tumor. She was 42. After her death, Gerson took up painting, and after he married Judith Margoshes Golwyn, a science writer and poet, the two collaborated on several books of poems and illustrations.

In 1989, Judith was working with physicist Carl Pennypacker on a musical play based on the life and career of Stephen Hawking. Gerson, stimulated by all the talk of astrophysics, joined a team at Berkeley headed by Pennypacker and Saul Perlmutter, that searched for supernovae -- exploded stars. Gerson devised a method for using the variable brightness of the light being emitted by different supernovae to prove that the universe was expanding, not shrinking. He and his colleagues theorized that there was an invisible force, which came to be called “dark matter,” that was driving that expansion.   

Despite illness during his final decade, Goldhaber continued working as an emeritus professor until 2008. He died as a result of pneumonia, on this day in 2010.