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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Robert Walsh Birge (1924-2010)

Robert Walsh (Bob) Birge died on August 16, 2010 at the age of 86, after a short battle with brain cancer. Birge was born on January 30, 1924 in Berkeley, California, to Raymond T. and Irene Birge. He attended University High School, then the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in physics. While still an undergraduate student, he worked as a maintenance technician at the Crocker Laboratory on the Berkeley campus, which housed Ernest Lawrence’s 60-inch cyclotron. When the army called to draft him, Lawrence convinced them that Birge’s talents would best be utilized in the top-secret Manhattan Project underway at Los Alamos, New Mexico. After the war, Birge attended graduate school at Harvard, where he met his first wife, Elizabeth Ann Chamberlain. After receiving their Ph.D.’s in physics in 1950, the couple moved back to California, first to Lafayette and then to Berkeley, where they built a house only a few blocks from where Bob was raised.

Birge started working at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now called the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) as a post-doc, then became a regular staff member, then a co-leader of the Powell-Birge group, and finally the leader of the Birge group after Wilson Powell’s retirement. The research focus of the group was on the use of visual techniques, initially photographic emulsion, and subsequently various bubble chambers, to obtain important results on antiproton annihilation, kaon decay, K0 regeneration, and pion-nucleon interactions.

In 1973 Birge moved into administration as head of the Physics Division and associate director of the Laboratory. He was most proud of his support of the many talented young physicists vying for laboratory resources to try out their exciting new ideas. One of the notable events during Birge’s directorship was the invention and development of the Time Projection Chamber (TPC) by David Nygren. TPCs have been major elements of many subsequently-built detectors. Birge stepped down from his leadership position at the end of 1981, but stayed on to assist his successors until 1994 when he officially retired.

Pier Oddone, former deputy director of Berkeley Lab and presently Fermilab Director, has this to say about Birge: "Bob was a wonderful physicist, but above all he was a wonderful human being. His broad intellect, warmth and generosity were a gift to all of us around him--not to mention the thrill of being invited to dinner at his home, always a masterwork of culinary art. He supported young scientists, and I was fortunate to be one of them when I first joined Berkeley in 1972. He gave me opportunities as a young postdoc that were far beyond my station and have shaped the rest of my career. I learned from him to place big bets on young scientists. I will miss Bob dearly."

In retirement, Birge devoted much time to his hobbies of cooking and traveling. After his wife, Ann, died suddenly in 1994, he was fortunate to find a new partner who shared his avocations. He married Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas in 1999, and with her he continued to travel extensively and prepare fine food for his family and friends. After Elizabeth died of cancer in 2007, Bob got lucky again, meeting Barbara Borowiak, who had also outlived two spouses. Birge and Barbara traveled to Germany as recently as June of this year, although by then he was already suffering symptoms of his undiscovered brain tumor.

Birge is survived by his children, Margit, Bettine, Norman, and step-son Julian; grandchildren, Ben and Alex Holme of Oakland, Henry Birge-Lee of Los Angeles, Julian and Adrian Birge of East Lansing, Michigan, and step-grandchildren Alex and Ashley Thomas of Orinda, CA.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, November 21, at 3 p.m. at the Faculty Club on the University of California campus in Berkeley.

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