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Alvin Weinberg

Dr. Alvin Weinberg, Director of ORAU’s Institute for Energy Analysis from 1975-1985.

It is a rare occasion indeed when an entire city celebrates someone’s birthday, but when Dr. Alvin M. Weinberg turned 80, the City of Oak Ridge, Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and the city’s newspaper, The Oak Ridger, all paid tribute to the man and his contributions to nuclear energy development.

Weinberg celebrated his 80th birthday on April 20, 1995. On the evening of April 19, friends and colleagues came together for a birthday celebration at the Oak Ridge Civic Center, where speakers included Jon M. Veigel, then ORAU president; Alvin Trivelpiece, ORNL director; and former U.S. Senator Howard Baker. The next day, Weinberg was honored at ORNL as part of an all-day celebration of his life’s work. The day featured tours of the facilities and speakers who discussed his contributions to science.

A native of Chicago, Ill., Weinberg received his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. In 1941, he joined the University of Chicago group that developed the first chain reactor. As a member of this team, he worked on the reactor that produced the plutonium that would ultimately be used for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

Weinberg relocated to Oak Ridge in 1945, when he came to work for ORNL, then known as Clinton Laboratories. In 1955, having already served as research director, he became director of ORNL, a position he held for 18 years.

From 1975-1985, Weinberg served as director of ORAU’s Institute for Energy Analysis (IEA), which pioneered investigations of the greenhouse effect, alternate energy sources, and maximizing energy sources at minimum cost to the economy and the environment. In 1985, he retired as director and was named ORAU distinguished fellow by the ORAU Board of Directors.

Weinberg remained active in the research community. He served as one of the primary planners of the May 4, 1996, Symposium on Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons that addressed issues surrounding nuclear weapons and how to avoid future war, and he personally raised a major share of the funds for the International Friendship Bell, a project that commemorates Oak Ridge’s role in ending World War II and expresses hope for peace, friendship, and understanding among all of the people of the world.

In addition to his writings concerning scientific and administrative works, he was also a prolific writer on the interaction between modern technology and society. He coined many phrases that have become part of our everyday language; “big science,” “technological fix,” and “faustian bargain” are just a few examples.

Many of his earlier essays were published in a collection titled “Reflections on Big Science.” One of his later works was “The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer,” a mix of anecdotes and remembrances with just a bit of technical information to support his opinions.

In 2005, Weinberg celebrated his 90th birthday at ORAU. Former ORAU President Ron Townsend helped him light the candles.

Throughout his career, Weinberg was a leading figure in the development of nuclear energy. Among his accomplishments was the proposal to use pressurized water for nuclear submarine propulsion. Weinberg was recognized many times, winning the Atoms for Peace Award, the Harvey Prize, the Heinrich Award, and the Fermi Award. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and a Foreign Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences.

Weinberg passed away on Oct. 18, 2006, at the age of 91.