A new chapter: Stanley Ruby, physicist

So far on this blog we have covered many aspects our family history: our father's family roots in the Russian Pale, the life of the illustrious Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spektor, Jewish life in Harlem and the Bronx, the rise of the American liquor industry in the 1930s, our mother's exodus from Germany and flight to America, the implementation of economic Aryanization in occupied France in the 1940s, and much more. It has been amazing to learn in some depth about these historical periods and events and how our family members' lives, and ours, were shaped by them.

We will now turn our attention to another rich subject that shaped our family and our times, nuclear physics in the postwar period, courtesy of our father Stanley Ruby, who returned home from WWII at age 22 to finish his education and start a career in that burgeoning field less than a year after the first atomic bombs had been exploded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I will warn you that, unlike the histories that we have covered to date, this one will take us into some fairly difficult scientific terrain. I will do my best to make the material understandable to curious readers without dumbing it down entirely. As with the past episodes, we will see how our family member played a role in important historical events and how that involvement impacted his and our lives.

This story begins with a recent trip I made to visit Twyla and Zach at UCLA, where they are both pursuing graduate studies. Twyla's field of science history is near and dear to my own interests, and she graciously allowed me to sit in on several lectures in the class for which she is a teaching assistant this semester, an undergraduate survey of science history from the French Revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union. The professor is Theodore Porter, an expert on the development of statistics and the social sciences in the 19th century. His approach is to understand the cultural, social and political contexts of science history.

I had been reading along with the syllabus since the beginning of the term and scheduled my visit to hear his lectures about science under National Socialism, both in life science (eugenics) and the physical sciences (the Nazi atomic project and V2 rocketry). Among the readings for the week was the play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, in which a 1941 meeting between two physics greats, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, forms the central focus. (I had seen the play together with Stan, Helga, Walter and Joanne when it ran in San Francisco in 2002.)  Twyla and I spent a good deal of time during my visit discussing interpretations of the play.

I could go on at length on this subject, but the important thing is that my visit left me thinking about the resurrection of German physics after the war. On my return train trip through California's central valley, I recalled that a number of my father's physics colleagues were German. The field that he worked in, exploring the so-called Mössbauer effect, was named for Rudolph Mössbauer, a physicist from Munich who discovered a form of nuclear resonance in 1958 and won the Nobel Prize in 1961.

Taking advantage of Amtrak's on-board Wifi service, I googled to find out if Mössbauer had been the first postwar German Nobel recipient. He was not—Walter Bothe, a participant in the German Uranium Club that became the Nazi atomic bomb project, and the developer of Germany's first cyclotron, won it in 1954, awarded together with Max Born, a Jewish physicist who had fled Germany before the war. After that, Mössbauer was the first.

This rumination led to more searches of various scientists I remembered from Stan's days at Westinghouse (Pittsburgh), Soreq (Israel) and Argonne (Chicago). Mike Kalvius was one who had visited our family a number of times, and I remembered he was also from Munich. I discovered that earlier this year he had co-edited a volume of historical papers celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Mössbauer Nobel.

There are quite a few mentions of Stan in the The Rudolf Mössbauer Story, including in a chapter by Gopal Shenoy, another frequent guest in our home, where he credits Stan for the important suggestion that synchrotron radiation could be a useful replacement for nuclear sources in Mössbauer spectroscopy. That insight, delivered in a paper at the 1974 Mössbauer Conference in Paris, is thought to be Stan's most significant career accomplishment, since synchrotron sources were later shown to be practical and are now commonly used for Mössbauer studies in various fields. (We have previously posted a copy of Gopal's obituary of Stan in Hyperfine Interactions, in which wrote that "Stan will be best remembered for his proposal in 1974 to excite the 14.4 keV Mössbauer resonance in Fe57 using synchrotron radiation rather than a radioactive source to populate the nuclear excited state.")

As I was enjoying this trip down memory lane, I soon received a shock when I began to see references to earlier work by Stan that I had known nothing about. It involved an experiment he had performed at Brookhaven as a graduate student, and it seems something had gone wrong along the way. I'll explain more in the next post.