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Roger W. Cohen

21 February 2017
(12 December 1939 - 10 September 2016)

The physicist’s work led to improved television displays and power systems for outer solar system spacecraft.

Roger W. Cohen (1939-2016)
Roger W. Cohen (1939-2016)

Roger W. Cohen, a highly regarded physicist with major contributions to materials science and industrial management, was born on 12 December 1939, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. His high school years were spent in Plainfield, New Jersey, where he attended Wardlaw Country Day school. He passed away, following a courageous battle with a brain tumor, on 10 September 2016 in La Jolla, California.

After receiving his BS in physics from MIT, Roger went on to obtain an MS and PhD in physics from Rutgers. He then completed the Executive Program at the Harvard Business School.

Roger spent 16 years at GE (originally the RCA) Laboratories in Princeton, where he successfully demonstrated the first germanium-silicon thermoelectric power generator. That technology subsequently powered a series of outer solar system exploration spacecraft: Voyager (launched 1977), Galileo (1989), Cassini (1999), and New Horizons (2006). The oldest power units in these spacecraft are approaching their 40th year of service. He was a member of the team that successfully developed and commercialized the world’s first commercial 100 000+ Gauss superconducting magnet, a major breakthrough in the industrial application of superconductivity. Collaborating with Curtis R. Carlson, Roger developed an information-theoretic description of the human visual system and associated software that simulates the human ability to perceive differences in displayed images. That work led to many commercial pattern recognition and image quality applications, and several awards, including the first Otto Schade Prize for an outstanding scientific achievement in the advancement of functional performance and image quality of information displays, and a special Emmy award for improved high-definition television.

Moving to Exxon Corporate Research Laboratories in 1978, Roger organized and built the first research laboratory in theory and modeling at Exxon Corporation. He became Laboratory Director and then Senior Director of Exxon Corporate Research in 1984, with responsibility for half of the basic research activities in the corporation.

In the late 1980s Roger turned to technology development. He formed and led an Innovation Group to develop and commercialize technology ideas for retail marketing. His team demonstrated the world’s first vehicle recognition/payment technology in a retail fuel setting, evolving into the current SpeedPass® system. Becoming Manager of Research Planning and Programs, Roger initiated and deployed new strategies for key technology assets in energy, leading to the development of new high-strength steels for gas pipelines, inter-corporate partnerships to advance fuel cells for transportation applications, novel technologies to find and produce hydrocarbon resources, and technologies for environmental bioremediation. He established and led the first-in-industry competitive technology intelligence function and developed and implemented program-planning systems for new science knowledge assets. While at Exxon, Roger initiated and led the only industrial research activity in basic research on climate change. His Exxon team participated in the worldwide scientific efforts to understand climate better, and they were lead authors of key chapters of major IPCC reports. Having more time to study details of climate science after retirement, he became increasingly skeptical that increasing CO2 levels from human activities would be harmful. In the last few years of his life Roger was convinced that more CO2 would benefit the Earth. He was a founding member of the CO2 Coalition and served on its Board.

Roger was a founding member of the APS Topical Group on the Physics of Climate (GPC). His work, as a member of GPC, demonstrated that he was a force for getting at the truth. A source of tremendous integrity, Roger was an uncompromising believer in the principle that “Honesty must be regarded as the cornerstone of ethics in science.”

Roger had approximately 50 publications and five US patents in the areas of materials, electronic devices, energy, the human visual system, and technology management. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He has served on Visiting Committees in the physics departments at the University of California, San Diego and the University of Texas at Austin.

Roger spent most of his leisure hours with a yellow pad and pencil, working out physics equations, but he also managed to collect exotic cars and he loved to drive them fast. He was the father of two children: Geoffrey, the James G. March Professor of Organizational Studies in Education and Business and Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, and Barbara, eighth-grade special education teacher at Marlborough Middle School. He was devoted to a granddaughter, Benie, and a grandson, Emrey.

Roger’s friendship, courage, and wise council will be long remembered.

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