MIT Physics News Spotlight

Stanislaw Olbert, Professor of Physics, Emeritus, dies at 94

Longtime Physics Professor Stanislaw “Stan” Olbert, PhD ’53, a pioneer in solar winds who contributed to the Voyager missions, dies at 94

Sandi Miller | Department of Physics
October 3, 2017

Stanislaw Olbert
Photo: Hale Bradt, 2015
Stanislaw Olbert
Photo: MIT Photo Service, ca 1957

Dr. Stanislaw “Stan” Olbert, Professor of Physics, Emeritus, PhD ’53, died suddenly of a heart attack Sept. 23, 2017. He was 94.
Olbert fought in the Polish underground army in World War II, came to MIT on a scholarship to earn his doctorate, and, as a member of MIT’s Space Plasma Group, was one of the pioneer theorists of the space age. He specialized in the understanding of the solar wind, the streams of atomic particles flowing outward from the sun. He participated in, and brought insight to, the measurements of the solar wind with instruments on several NASA space missions, including the Voyager missions to the outer planets and interstellar space.

Born in 1923, Olbert grew up in a small village near Lwów, in Eastern Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine). When he was about 4 years old, his father died from injuries sustained in World War I, and the boy was brought up by his widowed mother. “He had a very hard early life,” recalled a colleague, Physics Prof. Wit Busza, whose family came from the same area. “He grew up in poverty, and as a boy he had to work hard manually to help his mother. There was no bitterness in him. Somehow, despite these circumstances he managed to get some education and impress people with his abilities.”

Olbert impressed many with his academic excellence, so much so that a Catholic priest and Jewish doctor collaborated to arrange better schooling for him than was available in his village.

During the Russian occupation of Eastern Poland from 1939 to 1941, at a time when many of his countrymen disappeared into Siberia, Olbert was able to continue his education, concentrating on math and physics. Days after his high school graduation, Germany invaded Russia, overrunning Eastern Poland. As a slave laborer under the Nazi regime, Olbert was forced to work first as a mason; then, because he spoke German, he was given work as a bookkeeper on a German-run farm. By this time he was working secretly with the Polish underground army, and he was able to provide information about the route of food shipments from the farm in Poland to the cities of Germany, so that the underground could intercept the shipments. Speaking with a friend during this time, he wishfully said that after the war he hoped to study physics “because I want to find out what there is in outer space.”

He fought in the brutal Warsaw uprising (1944) against the Germans.  The job of Olbert’s unit was to disable German tanks with grenades and Molotov cocktails. In retaliation, the Germans left few buildings standing, and 200,000 Poles died during the uprising.

At the underground army’s defeat, Polish-German negotiations spared the insurgents from being sent to a concentration camp, and they surrendered to the Germans as prisoners of war, with the rights specified in the Geneva Convention of 1939. He spent the next seven months in Stalag 7A in Nuremburg.

When the war ended, Olbert could not return home to Communist-occupied Poland; he was declared a Displaced Person. He benefited from an Allied policy requiring the newly reopened University of Munich to include qualified DPs as 20 percent of its student admissions. He had no documents or papers, but, after passing entrance examinations, was admitted and resumed his studies in physics and mathematics.  


Stanislaw Olbert
Photo: MIT Photo Service, ca 1957
Photo: Hale Bradt, 2015

In 1949, his excellent academic performance in Munich earned him a scholarship to the doctoral program of MIT’s Department of Physics. Packing only some worn clothes, a box of books, and a fork, knife, and spoon, he boarded a boat that took three weeks to plow through the stormy Atlantic before arriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October 1949. Years later, he was able to track down his mother, and he brought her over to America.

His initial status as a special graduate student—he had no undergraduate degree—was changed subsequently to that of a regular graduate student in physics. He worked with the Cosmic Ray Group led by Professor Bruno Rossi. His doctoral thesis (1953) dealt with the theoretical analysis of the μ-meson component of cosmic rays in the atmosphere. He joined the MIT faculty in 1957 and served until his retirement in 1988.

Olbert’s research in the field of space plasmas began with a study of the origins of cosmic rays in our galaxy. This work (“The Origin of Cosmic Rays,” Phys. Rev. 1954) performed in collaboration with Professors Rossi and Philip Morrison, led Olbert into fundamental investigations of individual and collective behavior of charged particles in the interplanetary environment.
The results of these investigations became the basis of two MIT graduate courses. One of these, taught in collaboration with Rossi, led to the publication of a textbook on the subject, Introduction to the Physics of Space, McGraw-Hill, 1970.
Olbert also studied the properties of high-energy nuclear interactions and the extensive air showers—large cascades of atomic particles propagating through the atmosphere—that are produced by those interactions. This provided the first theoretical framework in which the implications of various assumptions about the basic cascade processes could be worked out for comparison with observed shower phenomena [“Theory of High-Energy N-component Cascades,” Ann. Phys. 1957].

“Professor Olbert was the theoretical backbone of MIT’s Space Plasma Group,” said his colleague, Hale Bradt, Professor of Physics, Emeritus. The group flew instruments in numerous space missions to study the solar wind, beginning with its first in situ measurement with Explorer 10 in 1961, and including the 1977 launches of Voyager I and Voyager II. Even today, the Voyagers continue to send data from in and beyond the heliosphere. Among other contributions, Olbert engaged in theoretical studies of a variety of mechanisms that could be responsible for the generation of stellar winds ["Stellar Winds Driven by Alfven Waves," Astrophys. J. , 1975.] 

From 1979 to 1986, Professor Olbert undertook two major research projects: the self-consistent solution of the problem of solar wind dynamics ["A Theory of Local and Global Processes which Affect Solar Wind Electrons 1.  The Origin of Typical 1 AU Velocity Distribution Functions—Steady State Theory," J. Geophys., 1979] and theoretical studies of radiation generated by solid conductors moving through a magnetized plasma ["Radiation of Plasma Waves by a Conduction Body Moving Through a Magnetized Plasma," J. Geophys. Res., 1986.]

Olbert was a visiting professor at the University of Rome and at the University of Florence in 1986 and 1987, and at the Institute for Cosmic Studies in Warsaw, Poland, in 1991. As a professor at MIT, Professor Olbert maintained contact with many of his graduate and undergraduate students who have since become well known in the field of space research.

“As a thesis supervisor, Stan was very supportive and generous with his time,” said Olbert’s last doctoral student, Alan Barnett, PhD ’83. “He loved to teach, and when I started working for him, he gave me private lessons on the physics of space plasmas, which had not been covered in my coursework. “His cheerful and optimistic outlook was infectious, making it easier for me to cope with the stresses of graduate school. Stan was a gentle, kind, and brilliant man. I feel fortunate that he was my friend, and I will miss him greatly.”

After his retirement, Olbert remained active in the field and continued his visits to Italy. Fluent in many languages, Olbert was an amateur philologist and was fascinated by the nuances of language. He followed current events with newspapers in German, Italian, Polish, and English.

He continued to collaborate both at home and in Europe with former students and associates on various projects. His 2003 paper ["Field Line Motion in Classical Electromagnetism," Am. J. Phys, 2003] provides methods for the visualization of the motion of electromagnetic fields that have been used in the teaching of freshman physics both at MIT and around the world. His last first-author paper ["The creation and propagation of radiation: Fields inside and outside of sources," Am. J. Phys., 2012] was published in 2012, at the age of 89.

Despite increasing health problems, Olbert remained positive and active. “A few years ago, he found an exact solution for the electro-magnetic field generated by a rotating charged sphere,” recalled Barnett, referring to the latter paper. “The textbook treatment of the problem expresses the solution as a Fourier integral, which in general cannot be performed analytically; Stan's solution, which is relativistically correct, contains no integrals and expresses the result in a simple analytic form.”

“He was just an amazingly optimistic and cheerful person, despite the vicissitudes of recent years,” said John Belcher, Class of 1922 Professor of Physics. “I never met anyone like him in that respect.” 

He and his family lived in Melrose, Massachusetts, and later in Cambridge with summers spent on their New Hampshire farm.

Olbert is survived by his wife, Norma (DeVivo), and their two children, Thomas of Cambridge, a writer, and Elizabeth of Farmington, Maine, an artist and adjunct professor at the University of Maine, Farmington.

The family has memorialized aspects of Olbert’s life in two artistic endeavors. In 1980, Elizabeth was inspired by the Voyager spacecraft images of the planet Jupiter, and by her father’s participation in those missions, to create the large abstract painting Jupiter, reminiscent of the images. It was accepted into the permanent collection of MIT's List Visual Arts Center and currently hangs in the headquarters of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, Room 37-241. In 2014, Norma published a biography of Olbert’s early years in Poland and Germany, The Boy from Lwów (CreateSpace, 2014), for which Thomas wrote the foreword and Elizabeth designed the cover.

Professor Olbert’s body was cremated. There will be no funeral service. A memorial gathering will be announced in the near future.

Reprinted with permission of MIT News.