Arthur Robert Kantrowitz, a brilliant physicist and engineer, died of heart failure at age 95 in New York on 29 November 2008. Arthur’s important contributions to physics include his groundbreaking work on high-intensity molecular beams, shock-wave physics, and high-temperature gas dynamics.

Arthur was born on 20 October 1913 in the Bronx, New York. After high school, his parents wanted him to study medicine. Although he and his younger brother Adrian shared a childhood dream to build an artificial heart to benefit humankind someday, Arthur preferred physics and engineering science.

In 1930 he entered Columbia University to study physics. His favorite teacher, I. I. Rabi, later became his mentor and good friend. After receiving his BS in 1934 and his MA, also in physics, in 1936, Arthur worked as an aeronautical physicist at the Langley Research Center of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA. He remained there until 1946.

At NACA, Arthur quickly established himself as an expert in gas dynamics. His research on shock-wave formation, propagation, and stability in supersonic channel flows was an important contribution to the World War II effort. Over the ensuing decades, Arthur’s research proved vital for the design and development of supersonic diffusers and ramjets, compressors, and turbojet engines.

In 1941 Arthur decided to work part-time at Columbia and earn his PhD. Rabi suggested he ask Edward Teller to be his thesis adviser. Teller first declined, but he changed his mind after reading Arthur’s thesis proposal on measurement of vibrational relaxation times of carbon dioxide molecules using simple aeronautical instruments. Teller was so impressed by Arthur’s talent and ingenuity that he agreed not only to be Arthur’s adviser but also to let him return to Langley to finish his research and write his thesis without supervision.

In 1946, the year before he received his PhD, Arthur started working as a professor at Cornell University’s new graduate school of aeronautical engineering. He also was appointed a professor of engineering physics.

At Cornell, Arthur conducted groundbreaking research on molecular beams with his first graduate student, Jerry Grey. By using the self-collimating property of strong supersonic nozzle flows, they showed that the molecular beam intensity can be increased by orders of magnitude over the effusion-based beams used by Otto Stern and Rabi that led to their respective Nobel Prizes in 1943 and 1944. Further extensions of Arthur’s “nozzle beam” method resulted in at least two other Nobel Prizes, to Yuan Tseh Lee and Dudley Herschbach in 1986 and to John Fenn in 2002. An inspiring teacher, Arthur produced many outstanding students who later played important roles in the aerospace industry and in higher education.

To counter the potential strategic threat from the Soviet Union, in late 1954 Arthur took on the challenge of solving in the shortest possible time the problem of keeping the warhead of an intercontinental ballistic missile from burning up during hypersonic reentry. He convinced the US government that crucial information to design survivable heat shields for ICBM warheads could be obtained more effectively from the shock-tube method recently developed by his research group at Cornell to reproduce the strong shock-wave and high-temperature air samples (up to 104 K) than from multistage hypersonic-rocket experiments. A six-month “crash program” funded by the US Air Force for that purpose was successfully completed in 1955. That work was done in the new Avco Everett Research Laboratory, staffed by many Cornell graduates and guided by Arthur from the university. In 1956 Arthur left Cornell to work full-time at Avco Corp, first as director of its AERL division and then also as vice president and director of the company.

After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 in October 1957, accelerated research on reentry physics at AERL under Arthur’s guidance led to better understanding of the complexity of identifying all nuclear warheads during the terminal phase of ICBM or satellite attacks so they could be destroyed or neutralized before reaching their intended targets. Subsequent research on blunt-body ablation, shock-wave kinetics, and nonequilibrium radiation helped Avco design and build successful heat shields for Apollo reentry.

From the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, AERL expanded as it took on more research projects. By that time the laboratory’s reputation had ensured a steady flow of young talent to augment the strong staff of engineers and scientists. Arthur continued to guide the research projects and created for each one a technical committee with optimally distributed expertise and interdisciplinary talent. His drive for innovation and professional excellence in those projects ensured that they were hugely successful.

Among Arthur’s many achievements during that period was the intra-aortic balloon pump, which he and his biomedical research team designed and developed at AERL with collaborative clinical evaluation by cardiologists at Massachusetts General Hospital. In fulfillment of Arthur’s boyhood dream, the pump is still used worldwide to treat heart failure.

Arthur’s long-standing interest in plasma physics and related engineering applications can be traced to his earlier years at Columbia, NACA Langley, and Cornell. His research on magneto-hydrodynamic power generation, which could potentially increase the thermodynamic efficiency of combustion-driven power plants by a large factor, and on copper-stabilized superconducting magnets culminated in a series of 1978–79 demonstration experiments in which 200 kW were fed into the Massachusetts power grid for up to 15 hours. Those experiments laid the foundation for much of the subsequent development of MHD power generators in the US and elsewhere.

High-power gas laser research at AERL in the 1970s and 1980s had repeatedly broken world records on pulse energy and achieved averaged power outputs up to the multimegawatt level, at high energy-conversion efficiencies. As that progress continued, Arthur envisioned low-cost launching of spacecraft through laser propulsion, although to date demonstration of its feasibility has been done only in small-scale experiments.

After reaching Avco’s mandatory retirement age in 1978, Arthur joined the faculty of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, where he presented seminars on science, engineering, and public policy. His interests included the roles of academia and the scientific community in the public perception of technology. He developed scientific adversary procedures, also known as the “science court,” which were designed to provide reliable information about both the scope and the limitations of scientific knowledge in making science-related public policy.

Arthur Kantrowitz was a compassionate and caring person. His humanity and wisdom are grievously missed. His innovative spirit, visionary instinct, great achievements, and courage in breaking new ground will long be remembered.

Arthur Robert Kantrowitz

Arthur Robert Kantrowitz

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