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Joseph Solomon Levinger

11 December 2018
(14 November 1921 - 25 October 2018)

The theorist who introduced the quasi-deuteron model was at the forefront of studying short-range correlations in nuclei.

Joseph Solomon Levinger, Professor Emeritus of Physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), died peacefully at age 96 on 25 October 2018. Joe was a unique physicist, with broad interests in science and a strong commitment to humanitarian issues.

Joseph Solomon Levinger (1921-2018)

Joe was born on 14 November 1921 in New York City and raised in Columbus, Ohio. He studied at the University of Chicago, earning BS and MS degrees in physics in 1941 and 1945. While there, he met Gloria Edwards, and they were married in 1943. Also in 1943 Joe joined the war effort as a junior physicist at the Metallurgical Laboratory (part of the Manhattan Project). Afterward he went on to earn his PhD from Cornell University in 1948. He stayed on at Cornell as an instructor, but in 1951 he joined the faculty at Louisiana State University, where he worked for 10 years. After returning to Cornell as a visiting professor of physics for three years, Joe joined the faculty at RPI, where he spent most of his career, from 1964 to 1992. In 1987 his wife Gloria passed, which was very difficult for him. Ten years later, at the age of 76, he married Hedi McKinley. They were together for 20 years, until Joe’s recent demise.

Although he started his research as an experimental nuclear physicist, Joe turned to theory for his PhD under the direction of Hans Bethe and Philip Morrison. He was prescient in his scientific interest, looking to understand the source of high-momentum nucleons ejected from complex nuclei in photoproduction and other reactions. Today this subject is referred to as short-range correlations (SRC) in nuclei, and Joe’s contributions were at the forefront. His most highly cited paper, The High Energy Nuclear Photoeffect, followed his next most cited paper, with Bethe, Dipole Transitions in the Nuclear Photoeffect.

Thus was born what Joe christened the quasi-deuteron model. These papers started a generation of physicists working on theory and experiment, studying SRC in nuclei using electromagnetic probes. Joe was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1957 and worked in England with Rudolf Peierls at the University of Birmingham, resulting in the manuscript for Nuclear Photodisintegration, published by Oxford University Press in 1960. Joe extended this work to other areas but also kept up with other studies based on his original papers, and many years later he published Fifty Years of the Quasi-Deuteron Model.

Meanwhile, Joe turned his attention to other problems, some of which were on the forefront of what would become high-energy physics. Those problems included elastic photon scattering from nuclei and bound atomic electrons, relativistic corrections to radiative transitions and to the dipole sum rule, the nuclear many-body problem, the structure of hyperons, elastic electron scattering from nucleons and nuclei, and topical issues in mathematical physics. Noteworthy manuscripts from this period include Structure of the Proton, with Robert Wilson, in Annual Review of Nuclear Science and a paper with Franz Gross while he was visiting Cornell in 1965, on the Equality of Electric and Magnetic Form Factors at the Proton–Antiproton Electron–Positron Threshold.

In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, with a large group of productive RPI graduate students, Joe extended his work to the structure of the trinucleon system, that is, 3He and 3H and their electromagnetic interactions. The calculations used the Fadeev equations, separable approximations, and expansions in hyperspherical harmonics. This included pioneering work on sum rules which acted as a useful check on the accuracy of the models, including a unification of electron scattering form factors for the deuteron and trinucleon. Applications were made to 3He and 3H, as well as 12C modeled as three alpha particles. These years were a particularly productive period for Joe, graduating students T. Brady, R. Fitzgibbon, M. Fuda, B. Gangopadhyay, E. Harms, K.K. Fang, L. Laroze, S. Maleki, and R. Stagat.

Visitors were also attracted to Rensselaer to work with Joe. Henry Valk (Georgia Tech) spent part of his 1982 sabbatical at RPI working with him and his students on few-body problems. Werner Zickendraht (University of Marburg) spent two sabbaticals at RPI, in 1989 and 1994, resulting in two publications on correlated hyperspherical harmonics in Annalen der Physik.

One of us saw the playful side of Joe one evening, at a performance in 2002 of “Interviewing the Audience” by the artist Spalding Gray. At a reception prior to going on stage, Gray combed the audience looking for people to interview, and he picked Joe. Seated side by side on stage, Gray asked Joe for his occupation. Joe replied, “I’m a theoretical nuclear physicist,” and Gray’s reaction was one of silent incredulity. Nevertheless, the interview came off beautifully.

Joe cared deeply for humanity and devoted much of his energy to worldwide issues in peace and justice. His brother Sam fought and died in the Spanish Civil War when Joe was 15. Joe was a Quaker and pacifist who traveled to Guatemala three times in the 1990s for Peace Brigades International, a group that sends observers to areas of conflict around the world. Over the past few years, Joe was studying the epidemiology of exposure to ionizing radiation and weighed in with letters to Physics Today on the subject.

Joe wrote an unpublished memoir, updated in 2010, that covers “Pedagogy, People, Physicists, Physics and Publications, and Politics.” It is a delightful read, a frank and intimate account, merging all aspects of Joe’s life into a fascinating narrative, with little embellishment. (Hedi apparently referred to Joe as “adjective deficient.”) The stories of how he learned, and taught, physics and what it was like to study and practice during eras that included World War II and the civil rights movement, contain many lessons.

Although his career was never far from his mind, Joe took great pride in watching his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren make their way in the world. A quiet and reserved man, his first wife Gloria was often heard to ask, “What are you thinking, Old Sage,” to which he would stir from his reverie, quietly chuckling in his inimitable way.

Joe made a positive difference in the lives of so many young people, both in and out of the world of physics. He is missed by many but remembered with fondness and gratitude.

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