Behram N. Kursunoglu, noted theoretical physicist, widely known founder and director of the Center for Theoretical Studies at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, and organizer of the Coral Gables Conferences, died in Coral Gables on 25 October 2003. He was lunching with his wife, Sevda, and friends Manfred Eigen and Ruthhild Winkler-Oswatitch, when he suffered a congestive heart attack.
Behram was born on 14 March 1922 in the small town of Çaykara on Turkey’s border with Georgia. He was sent on scholarship to the University of Istanbul, where he graduated in 1945. Then, on a Turkish government scholarship, he studied astronomy at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. His arrival in London in August 1945 coincided with the news of the bombing of Hiroshima, and he often recounted how he was affected by the newspaper accounts of the Los Alamos project and of the great scientists whose work contributed to the US nuclear program. He soon switched his field of study to physics and was awarded a BSc at Edinburgh in 1949. His teachers included Max Born and Edmond Whittaker.
That same year, Behram enrolled at Cambridge University, where he studied with Paul Dirac and others. He became fascinated with Albert Einstein’s and Erwin Schrödinger’s attempts at a unified field theory. His extensive correspondence with Einstein and Schrödinger led him to propose his own version, which was published in 1951 and in his PhD thesis in 1952. Behram went to Cornell University in 1952 as a postdoctoral fellow under Hans Bethe and worked on proton bremsstrahlung and Tamm–Dancoff methods in nuclear structure.
In 1953, Behram gave a colloquium at Princeton University. A three-hour meeting there with Einstein solidified his dedication to the construction of a unified field theory, which he worked on—with some excursions—for the rest of his life. That same year, he proposed the use of high-energy electron scattering from nuclei to determine the charge distributions of protons and neutrons as well as the heavier nuclei. In 1956, Robert Hofstadter started pursuing that line of research, which earned him a share of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physics.
After completing his postdoc in 1954, Behram joined the University of Miami as a visiting professor of physics. A year later, he returned to Turkey to perform his military service. He served as an adviser to the General Staff of the Turkish Army and became a founding member of the Turkish Atomic Energy Commission. He returned to Miami as a professor of physics in 1958.
While visiting Argonne National Laboratory in the summer of 1963, Behram informally met Morton Hamermesh, Katsumi Tanaka, and one of us (Meshkov) to discuss convening a winter conference in Miami on the then exploding use of group theory in elementary particle physics. That discussion led to the first of five Coral Gables Conferences on Symmetry Principles at High Energy in January 1964, which brought together a great number of leading scientists.
In 1965 and 1966, Behram invited J. Robert Oppenheimer to the Coral Gables Conferences. Oppenheimer lent his prestige to help Behram found the Center for Theoretical Studies, which was to function as a think tank for distinguished visitors and a training ground for young postdoctoral fellows. Behram served as its director until his retirement in 1992. The center flourished under Behram’s leadership during the 1960s and 1970s, when he had as many as 10 postdocs a year and a substantial number of senior visitors.
In 1969, Behram brought his old mentor, Dirac, to Miami from Cambridge. Dirac stayed for three years before moving to Florida State University, but continued to visit and participate in the Coral Gables Conferences until his death in 1984. The presence of Dirac at the center and at the conferences helped make Coral Gables a mecca for many of the world’s distinguished scientists.
Behram was dedicated to the idea of unity of the sciences, and he strove to make the Center for Theoretical Studies a bastion of interdisciplinary activity. He invited leading figures in chemistry, biology, lasers, and neuroscience to the center in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971, Lars Onsager, who had recently retired from Yale University, went to the center and brought a talented group of postdoctoral fellows who worked on problems of electrical conductivity in ice.
After Oppenheimer’s death in 1967, Behram enlisted Edward Teller as a member of his scientific council. The addition of Teller led the center to focus on nuclear energy and led to the creation of the Global Foundation, which fostered the study of global problems, including the production and use of energy, their impact on the environment, and the problems’ economic aspects. In 1977, the foundation’s first conference, the International Scientific Forum on an Acceptable Nuclear Energy Future of the World, was attended by leading figures, including Teller, Bethe, Nikolai Basov, Eugene Wigner, and Hofstadter, and many participants from government and private corporations. In 1979, Behram led a delegation consisting of Teller, Wigner, Bethe, and Hofstadter to testify, before the US House Committee on Science and Technology, on the use of nuclear energy and the Three Mile Island reactor accident.
In 1983, under Behram’s directorship, the Center for Theoretical Studies inaugurated a groundbreaking course, Nuclear War/Nuclear Peace, at the University of Miami. The course was given in collaboration with the physics and political science departments to large and enthusiastic groups of students. The course led to the creation of a Winter Nuclear Education Workshop for University Professors in 1985; that series lasted until 1991.
Among Behram’s other scientific achievements were the prediction of the existence of four different neutrinos (1959); the proposal of the generalization of internal and external symmetries for the elementary particles (1964); a unified theory of hadrons and leptons, which led to the concept of supersymmetry (1968); a postulation of the orbiton, which brings weak and strong interactions to his unified field theory (1975); and the prediction of massivity of neutrinos using the unified field theory (1976). He published his classic treatise Modern Quantum Theory in 1962 (W. H. Freeman), which brought wide critical acclaim from Werner Heisenberg and many others.
In addition to those accomplishments, Behram was the Turkish delegate to the United Nations Atoms for Peace Conference in Geneva (1958) and was a consultant to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (1962–64), the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics in Munich, Germany (1961), and the British Atomic Energy Establishment in Harwell (1961). He received the Turkish Presidential Science Prize in 1972 and the Kemal Ataturk Society Prize from that society in 2000. He was particularly pleased by this honor because of his lifelong adoration of Ataturk.
Behram possessed a sharp wit and an open demeanor, qualities important not only for attracting leading scientists to the center, but also for enlisting the participation of local philanthropists to host conference banquets in their homes and on their yachts.
Behram’s life was characterized by two powerful visions. First, there was his own research on unified field theory, which persisted when gravitation became a central issue in astrophysics and particle physics. In his later work, he emphasized a running fundamental length parameter related to the cosmological constant and stressed the capacity of his theory to encompass both short- and long-range attractive and repulsive interactions. That work had profound implications for the expansion of the universe. His second vision, which resulted from a deep humanist belief in the interactions of humans, was to convene, in an atmosphere of calm deliberation, some of the greatest minds of our time to investigate the scientific, political, and economic problems facing our civilization. His success in fulfilling both of those visions is noteworthy.