Actions of MIT’s 15th president have ‘grown to inspire generations,’ Reif says.
Dr. Bernard T. Feld, an emeritus professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped usher in the atomic era as an assistant to Enrico Fermi and then became a leading voice for nuclear disarmament for nearly half a century, died Friday (Feb. 19) at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., of lymphoma. He was 73.
A memorial service will be held Monday, March 31, at 1:30pm in the MIT Chapel.
He leaves his wife, Ellen Banks Feld of Brooklyn; two daughters from a previous marriage, Ellen Feld of Philadelphia and Elizabeth Feld of Kauai, Hawaii; a grandson, John Bradmiller-Feld of Philadelphia; and three brothers, Maury of Cambridge, Marvin of Tuscon, Ariz., and Myron of Los Angeles. He was divorced from his first wife, the former Eliza McCormick.
Dr. Feld was a graduate student and teaching assistant to physicists Fermi and Isador I. Rabi at Columbia University when he was given the opportunity to assist Fermi and physicist Leo Szilard in their efforts to produce a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.
In 1941 he suspended his graduate studies to join Fermi and Szilard at the University of Chicago, where the first controlled nuclear chain reaction was achieved in the Metallurgical Laboratory on December 2, 1942.
In 1943, Dr. Feld left Chicago for Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to participate in the effort, through the Manhattan Project, to develop an atomic bomb. From Oak Ridge he went to the Los Alamos Laboratory at the University of California, where he contributed to the development of the experimental plutonium bomb later detonated in the desert at Alamagordo, NM.
Dr. Feld, who was born in Brooklyn, had entered the City College of New York was he was 15 and received a bachelor of science degree in 1939. After World War II, he returned to Columbia University to receive his PhD in 1945.
He was appointed an instructor in physics at MIT in 1946, but before taking up his duties he spent six months in Washington, D.C., where he and other leading physicists were lobbying against military control of nuclear research and weapons development. The result was legislation setting up the civilian Atomic Energy Agency. It was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to peaceful uses of atomic power and to ending the threat of nuclear war.
In a talk before a New Hampshire group in 1981, he said:
"Nuclear weapons aren't good for anything and it's up to all of us to get this message across and reverse the current trends. To me, the use of a nuclear weapon is not only irrational, it's immoral.
"Having been involved in the original sin, I've spent the rest of my life trying to atone for it."
One of those closest to him at MIT, Institute Professor Emeritus Herman Feshbach, said, "We all owe a debt of gratitude to Bernie for his life-long dedication to the nuclear disarmament movement."
Dr. Feshbach noted that his colleague was an outstanding physicist.
Dr. Feld was promoted to assistant professor at MIT in 1948, associate professor in 1952 and professor in 1955. He served as director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Scienc e from 1975 to 1980. He retired in 1990.
His research focused on experimental and theoretical research in high-energy physics, particularly interactions among the fundamental particles. Among his significant scientific efforts was his contribution to the development of the Cambridge Electron Accelerator, jointly owned and operated by MIT and Harvard University.
Outside of MIT, Dr. Feld was at various times a Guggenheim Fellow and visiting professor at the University of Rome; a Ford Foundation Fellow and visiting scientist at the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland; visiting professor at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris; research associate at the Centre de Recherche Nucleaire, Saclay, France; and visiting professor of theoretical physics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London.
Dr. Feld published extensively in professional journals and wrote the book, Neutron Physics (1954) and Models of Elementary Particles (1969). as well as an extensive review article, "Neutron Physics." He also was a founding and associate editor for many years of Annals of Physics, an MIT-based journal presenting original work in all areas of basic physics research. In addition, he served 10 years as Consulting Science Editor for Blaisdell Publishing Company, a division of Random House, Inc., helping to develop a series of college-level physics textbooks.
His extensive study of arms control and disarmament, and his activities supporting the movement, took him throughout the world. He was vice-president of the Federation of American Scientists, one of the first groups dedicated to controlling nuclear weapons, president of the Council for a Liveable World and the Albert Einstein Peace Foundation, a member of the editorial board of the journal Disarmament and Arms Control, and editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The Bulletin printed the "doomsday clock," a symbolic representation of how close the world was, in the magazine's opinion, to nuclear war.
Dr. Feld also became deeply involved in the international "Pugwash" Conferences on Science and World Affairs, serving two-years as secretary-general of the conferences.
He was a prolific writer of essays, letters to newspapers and magazine articles, criticizing governments for not doing more to reduce nuclear stockpiles. He was especially proud, according to colleagues, to be on President Richard Nixon's "enemies list." He also assailed the arms buildup under President Ronald Reagan and was particularly critical of the "star wars" project to build an anti-ballistic missile shield.
He was co-director of MIT's Program on Science and Technology for International Security and he co-edited two books addressing the issue of disarmament: Impact of New Technologies on the Arms Race (with T. Greenwood, G.W. Rathjens and S. Weinberg, 1971) and The Future of the Sea-Based. Deterrent (with K. Tsipis and A.H. Cahn, 1973). He also published a collection of his papers, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness: Essays on Science and World Affairs, 1979).
Dr. Feld was a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His honors include the Leo Szilard Award for Physics in the Public Interest from the American Physical Society.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 23).