He coined the phrase “big science,” and that is just the beginning of the legacy Alvin Weinberg left — not only at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but within the scientific community as well.
Weinberg, who was director of ORNL from 1955 until 1973, died two weeks ago. He was 91.
“I have never known a man quite like Alvin,” said Alexander Zucker, who knew Weinberg personally and professionally and teaches physics at UT. “I would say that what made him unique was his profound concern for the welfare of man.
“He never stopped thinking about it.”
As a scientist, Weinberg co-authored the standard text on nuclear chain reaction theory with Eugene Wigner, one of the 20th century’s most notable physicists and a Nobel-laureate. Weinberg also recommended the Pressurized Water Reactor concept to Admiral Rickover for navy applications, leading to the design of nuclear-powered submarines. This concept ultimately became the basis for most nuclear power plants in the world.
As a vigorous proponent of nuclear energy, Weinberg was among the first to propose an organization dedicated to serving the nuclear industry, and his appreciation for science communication demonstrated itself when he produced a groundbreaking report in the 1960’s titled “Government, Science, and Information.” Known as “The Weinberg Report,” the document advocated the advancement of scientific literacy among both scientific technicians and laymen alike.
“Dr. Weinberg was a deep and thoughtful man who was very concerned about the progress and success of humanity,” said Kirk Sorensen, an aerospace engineer at NASA who has been a distance student at UT for the past three years. “He wanted to see humanity unlock the true potential of nuclear energy, and he labored at Oak Ridge to do so.”
Nuclear reactors were the centerpiece of ORNL when Weinberg moved to Oak Ridge in 1945. In the early ‘40s, the physicist began working on nuclear science through an accident of circumstance — he was drawn into the Manhattan project at the University of Chicago, where he did his undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. studies in what his adviser called mathematical biophysics, Zucker said.
“If he had been born 12 years sooner, Weinberg would have been a neurophysicist, just the same as if he had been born five years later,” Zucker said.
Weinberg received his Ph.D. in 1939.
Born in 1915, Weinberg was the son of two Russian immigrants. When enrolling in college in his hometown of Chicago, Weinberg found himself at the center of nuclear science investigation. He worked with Enrico Fermi on the first nuclear pile to undergo fission in 1941, as during that time, with the threat of the Germans developing their own nuclear reactors for weapons, the U.S. government was looking for scientists with any training in physics to help study nuclear processes. It was his early work in Chicago that led Weinberg to be recruited to ORNL because of his knowledge on how to design and build reactors.
As Weinberg advanced from a consulting scientist to director of research in the physics division to director of the entire lab, he encouraged the development of nuclear power for commercial power generation.
As he assumed the directorship of the lab in 1955, however, he recognized the importance of adding other research, besides nuclear science and technology, to the agendas of national laboratories.
Under his direction, ORNL began researching the biological effects of radiation on human genetics in the 1950s and the environmental impact of various energy systems ranging from coal-fired steam plants to the desalination of sea water in the 1960s. The scientists then performed comprehensive analyses of the potential impact of energy conservation on overall energy production and consumption in the next decade.
“His vision was much broader, even though he was a major proponent of nuclear energy,” Zucker said. “He was concerned with other things too.”
“He also was an early voice of warning about issues relating to nuclear safety and nuclear waste,” Sorensen said. “He had a very open mind about the future of nuclear energy and was not ‘bound’ to the conventional reactor concept as most seem to be, since he invented the ‘conventional’ reactor concept.”
After leaving ORNL, Weinberg continued to influence energy policy, acting as director of the Office of Energy Research and Development in President Richard Nixon’s White House and as director of the Institute for Energy Analysis, headquartered in Oak Ridge.
He remained vocal about the future of nuclear energy, according to UT’s department of nuclear engineering head, Harold Dodds.
“I had many occasions to talk with him one-on-one, as he was the kick-off speaker each fall for our weekly colloquium program,” Dodds said. “While I could notice from year to year that his physical health was deteriorating, his mind was always sharp. He could recall intricate details of technical projects that were conducted 60 years earlier.”
That sharp mind will be a characteristic of Weinberg that colleagues from ORNL will never forget. Weinberg, as Zucker recalls, came to all the scientists’ meetings at the lab, where researchers would present their work. Weinberg would always sit in the front row.
“We were always excited but afraid when Dr. Weinberg was there,” Zucker said. “He would really listen to what the scientists were saying and then ask them the most challenging questions.”
The former director was never afraid to challenge convention either, even if it was his own idea, such as in nuclear technology. The “very bright, talented and hardworking” individual Zucker remembers was the man who created the vision for ORNL.
“He was a superb director,” Zucker said. “And he inspired all of us to work hard. He knew everyone’s name at the lab, and everybody felt like they were working for Alvin.
“He personified the laboratory.”