Dr. Alvin Weinberg

Photo courtesy of National Academy of Engineering

His Legacy

In Memory of Alvin Weinberg

by Carolyn Krause Printed in the ORNL Review, Volume 40, Number 1, 2007

The former ORNL director envisioned what a national laboratory could be.

Alvin M. Weinberg in many ways personified Oak Ridge National Laboratory. As the Laboratory's visionary director and the intellectual leader of an energy policy think tank he founded at Oak Ridge Associated Universities, he influenced U.S. government energy and science policy as well as research funding priorities—from reactor design and nuclear safety to renewable energy and the impact on climate of increased carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The son of Russian Jews who met on a ship while emigrating to the United States in 1905, Weinberg was born April 20, 1915, in Chicago. He died October 18, 2006, in Oak Ridge at the age of 91.

The author of several books, numerous speeches and 541 scientific papers, Weinberg was a nuclear energy pioneer and prophet. He advocated the peaceful use of nuclear energy for producing electricity and medical radioisotopes. He also made accurate long-term predictions about energy technologies. He was a brilliant scientist and innovative scientific administrator. He was a thought-provoking communicator, coiner of words and a man of conscience and social responsibility who cared intensely about the welfare of humankind.

"Alvin was a worrywart for the human race," says his niece, Judith Goleman. In his last papers, authored in his late 80s, Weinberg was concerned about threats to humankind's survival—asteroids, nuclear waste, global warming and thermonuclear war—and capitalism's lack of compassion.

Weinberg was known on six continents. In Oak Ridge, this citizen of the world and Renaissance man was also a valued friend and neighbor. A lover of music and a musician, Weinberg played Bach preludes and fugues, as well as Christmas carols, on his Steinway grand piano and occasionally gave public concerts. Until his mid-80s he was a competitive tennis player with his backhand slice.

Early in life he followed in his sister Fay's footsteps, serving as editor of his high school newspaper. After earning B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago, Weinberg was recruited at age 26 to help the Manhattan Project, started in 1942 to develop the atomic bomb.

In Chicago he performed calculations for his mentor and hero Eugene Wigner, a Hungarian theoretical physicist who designed plutonium-producing nuclear reactors at Hanford, Wash., and later won the Nobel Prize in physics. Other scientific giants of the 20th century with whom Weinberg worked, giving birth to the nuclear age, included Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and Edward Teller.

Weinberg headed the nuclear design of the Graphite Reactor at Clinton Laboratories in Oak Ridge, where he and his family moved in 1945. The "X-10 pile," the world's first continuously operating reactor, produced recoverable amounts of plutonium, paving the way for production of this fuel at Hanford to power the atomic bomb that ended World War II.

In 1946-47, when Wigner was research director at Clinton Laboratories, Weinberg developed his administrative skills, first as the physics division director and then as ORNL's research director in 1948, replacing Wigner. Weinberg is credited with saving the Laboratory from shut-down, convincing the federal government that ORNL had reactor development capabilities vital to the nation. In 1955 he was named ORNL director.

Of the books that Weinberg wrote, he was most proud of the work he coauthored with Wigner, entitled The Physical Theory of Nuclear Chain Reactors. "That's probably my most important contribution to science," he once told the editor of the ORNL Review, which he founded in 1967.

Weinberg was the first to publish and promote to key Navy officers the concept of the pressurized water reactor. The energy source for U.S. nuclear submarines became the dominant reactor design in commercial nuclear power plants, which today provide 16 percent of the world's electricity.

Freeman Dyson, renowned physicist with the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, writes in a 2006 letter that, in 1956, Weinberg taught him and others at General Atomic Company the particulars of nuclear reactor function and design. Dyson continues:
"Weinberg made ORNL the best place in the world for designing and building nuclear reactors. Oak Ridge developed the basic technology for scientific research reactors, electric power reactors and Navy submarine propulsion reactors. He was the only nuclear pioneer who supported the wide universe of reactor designs, going beyond the conventional solid-fueled reactors. He built liquid-fueled reactors with highly original designs."

"The fundamental problem in the philosophy of scientific administration is the question of value."—Alvin Weinberg

Of Weinberg's broader influence at the Laboratory, Dyson writes: "His vision for Oak Ridge went far beyond nuclear reactors. He made ORNL become an outstanding international center for research in pure physics, chemistry and biology, as well as ecology and environmental science. He was interested in all kinds of energy technology and the effects of technology on the environment.

"Long before the subject of global warming became fashionable, he set up a research program in Oak Ridge to study the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on climate. This program trained many people who became leaders in climate studies at other institutions."

Alex Zucker, former acting director of ORNL, says Weinberg's leadership sprang from his interest in knowing ORNL researchers and understanding their work. "His trademark was sitting in the front row at information meetings and asking penetrating, and sometimes embarrassing, questions," Zucker notes. "If he approved—euphoria."

Weinberg was a member of the President's Science Advisory Commission. In 1961 he chaired the Kennedy Administration's Panel of Science Information, which issued the report "Science, Government and Information." Also known as the Weinberg Report, it emphasized the need to communicate meaningful scientific information to technical and lay audiences.

A popular speaker and bold thinker, Weinberg coined new words to explain his groundbreaking ideas about energy and science to lay audiences. Examples are "burning the sea" (fusion), "burning the rocks" (fission), "nuclear-powered agro-industrial complex," "nuclear priesthood," "technological fix," "Big Science" (mega-projects like the moon mission), and the "Faustian bargain" for nuclear power. Weinberg started the annual "State of the Laboratory" address for informing the Oak Ridge community about ORNL research.

Weinberg left ORNL in 1973 and started Oak Ridge Associated University's Institute for Energy Analysis, which he directed from 1975 to 1985. IEA was the first organization to receive significant funding from the Department of Energy for climate studies. In 1974, he worked in Washington, D.C., as director of the U.S. Office of Energy Research and Development to help address the energy crisis. One of his office's recommendations, to establish a solar energy research institute, resulted in the creation of a DOE national lab in Colorado, now called the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Weinberg told the Review in a 1995 interview that his most important and original contribution was to develop criteria for measuring the value of competing scientific ventures. The National Science Foundation uses many of these criteria to guide funding decisions.

Weinberg was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, American Philosophical Society and American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received dozens of honorary degrees. He won the Atoms for Peace Prize, Enrico Fermi Award, E. O. Lawrence Award, Hertz Prize and even the 1950 Young Man of the Year Award from the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce. Weinberg promoted peace and the end of the nuclear arms race. He led the International Friendship Bell project in which two bronze bells manufactured by Japanese artists were placed in Oak Ridge and Hiroshima, target of the first atomic bomb. He advocated the "sanctification of Hiroshima" to make the Japanese city a permanent shrine against nuclear war and for the tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons. The American Nuclear Society, which he helped establish, awards a Weinberg Medal "for contributions to the understanding of the social implications of nuclear technology."

Weinberg's biggest disappointment was that he did not live long enough to witness the "second nuclear era" with inherently safe nuclear power reactors that would replace fossil fuel plants and curb global warming. ORNL—the multidisciplinary laboratory he rescued, built and personified—continues the effort to realize his dream.

Reprinted with permission