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Edward Gerjuoy

31 March 2018
(19 May 1918 - 31 January 2018)

The accomplished theoretical physicist also had a successful career in law.

Edward Gerjuoy (1918-2018)

Edward Gerjuoy, who had a long and varied career as a theoretical physicist, lawyer, and human rights activist, died on 31 January 2018 in Pittsburgh, a few months shy of his 100th birthday. Ed was born in Brooklyn, New York to an immigrant family and attended Thomas Jefferson High School, where he captained the math team. He then went to City College beginning at age 15, where he said “the teachers were terrible and the students were fantastic.” He majored in both physics and mathematics, after being informed by the chair of the math department that he would never get a job as a mathematician because he was Jewish. Ed’s “claim to fame” was getting an A in mechanics while classmate Julian Schwinger got a B. When pressed, Ed would reveal that Schwinger’s grade may have been due to his never attending class. Ed was briefly a member of the Young Communists League but was expelled for laughing during meetings.

Ed enrolled in graduate school at Berkeley in 1937 because it was one of the few places in the US he could study quantum mechanics. As part of the group of Robert Oppenheimer, he wrote three papers on atomic and nuclear scattering (one co-authored with Schwinger). On the day after Pearl Harbor, Ed was summarily told he had earned his PhD. While in graduate school, he married Jacqueline Reid; they remained married for 65 years, until Jackie’s death. They are survived by two sons, Neil and Leif.

Ed was not invited to work at Los Alamos because he had earlier declined to participate in what he correctly assumed was Oppenheimer’s weapons-related research. Lacking a physics job after graduating, Ed worked at the Richmond ship yard, then moved to New London, Connecticut to work on incipient navy sonar technology. While monitoring experiments on a barge, Ed worked out the theory of sonar propagation in the ocean. He later joined Lyman Spitzer’s Sonar Analysis Group housed in the Empire State Building, where he spent the rest of the war developing anti-submarine strategies for Allied destroyers.

Ed joined the faculty of the University of Southern California in 1946. He spent the summer of 1952 at Westinghouse Laboratory in Pittsburgh because he needed the money, while his wife and young children remained behind. After Ed walked into the office of David Halliday, who was chair of physics at the University of Pittsburgh, and asked for a job, Ed was offered a faculty position on the basis of one talk. He convinced Jackie to move to Pittsburgh by telling her how beautiful and green the city was. “Two days after she moved to Pittsburgh, the steel strike ended,” he recalled, and the skies filled back up with smoke. Ed received tenure a year later.

In 1958 Ed took a position at the new General Atomics Laboratory in San Diego, working on plasma physics related to a nuclear fusion reactor. After two years, he accepted a position as the head of the plasma physics group at RCA Labs in Princeton. In 1964 he went back to Pitt as a full professor and worked on nonrelativistic collision theory and electronatom collisions until the early 1970s, when computational analysis started to dominate his area of expertise.

Feeling he would live a long time and wanting to keep earning money past the university’s mandatory retirement age of 70, Ed spent a sabbatical year in 1974 as a first-year law student at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. He then earned a law degree in 1977 from the University of Pittsburgh Law School, graduating second in his class at age 59. In 1981 he was appointed to the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board by Gov. Richard Thornburgh and served until 1987. He was editor-in-chief for the American Bar Association’s Jurimetrics: The Journal of Law, Science, and Technology for six years. Ed published a number of legal papers about qualifications for scientific expert witnesses, about whom he told many amusing stories. During one case involving ground water contamination, Ed became exasperated with an expert witness for the defense. He walked over to a blackboard and asked “Are you familiar with this equation?” writing down P=ρgh . The witness pondered for a few seconds and replied, “What’s Pittsburgh got to do with it?” From 1987 to 2002, Ed worked for the Pittsburgh law firm Rose Schmidt on environmental law cases.

During his time as a lawyer, Ed remained active in the American Physical Society; he said that he “likes physicists a lot more than lawyers.” He was appointed to the APS Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists, chairing it twice, served as chair of the Panel on Public Affairs, and was a member of the Sakharov Prize Committee. Ed was involved with several high-profile human rights cases: He served on the defense team for Los Alamos employee Wen Ho Lee, who was improperly accused of espionage, and helped Chinese dissident physicist Fang Lizhi emigrate from China.

Ed returned to physics as emeritus professor at Pitt in 2002 and started investigating the theory of quantum computing. His last refereed science paper in 2010 concerned dense coding and appeared in Physical Review A. I asked him whether he was the oldest person to publish a physics paper. He quickly brushed that possibility aside, noting that Hans Bethe published a paper at age 95. “But,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “I could be the oldest person who has not won a Nobel Prize!” In 2013 Ed gave a TEDx talk for a conference in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, on successful aging.

A three-part interview of Edward Gerjuoy is archived as part of the American Institute of Physics Oral History Project.

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