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March 1, 2006

Berkeley Scientific Great Owen Chamberlain Has Died

BERKELEY, CA — Owen Chamberlain, Nobel laureate, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the legendary team of scientists at Ernest O. Lawrence’s “Rad Lab” has died.  He passed away quietly in his home in Berkeley, on February 28, 2006, following a long struggle with Parkinson's Disease.  He was 85.

Owen Chamberlain
Owen Chamberlain

Chamberlain is most remembered for his role in the discovery of the antiproton in 1955, a role for which he shared the 1959 Nobel Prize in physics, with his Rad Lab and UC Berkeley colleague, Emilio Segrè.  The discovery of the antiproton, the mirror image counterpart to the proton in ordinary matter, was made possible through the combination of the Bevatron accelerator, the world’s most powerful at that time, and a unique detector, designed by Chamberlain and his colleague, Clyde Wiegand, that was set off only by particles moving at the speed predicted for antiprotons.

Chamberlain was a native of the Bay Area, born in San Francisco on July 10, 1920. His father was W. Edward Chamberlain, a prominent radiologist who had a strong interest in particle physics. His mother was Genevieve Lucinda Owen.  His family moved to Philadelphia in 1930, where Chamberlain attended public school. After obtaining a bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College in 1941, Chamberlain entered graduate school in the fall of that year at UC Berkeley, where he first met Segrè, a rising star in nuclear physics who would have a strong influence on his career.

Said Segrè in his autobiography, “In one of my optics courses there was a student who amused himself by finding flaws in my lectures.  His objections, always polite, were often well taken and showed a critical and alert mind,  I appreciated the young man who obviously was interested in the course, and used his head, and I made friends with him.  He was Owen Chamberlain.”

Chamberlain’s studies at Berkeley were interrupted when the United States entered World War II.

In early 1942, at the prompting of Lawrence, Chamberlain joined the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government’s secret effort to build an atomic bomb. Working as an assistant to Segrè, first in Berkeley, and then at the laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he investigated nuclear cross sections for intermediate-energy neutrons and the spontaneous fission of heavy elements.

“It was very hard for my draft board to believe that at the age of 23, I was indispensable to the war effort,” he once told an interviewer.  “They tried to draft me three times; each time I was saved by a presidential directive.”

Chamberlain was a participant in Trinity, the first atomic bomb test, held in Alamagordo, New Mexico, in 1945. After the war, in 1946, he resumed his graduate work at the University of Chicago.  His mentor was the great Italian physicist and Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi, the world’s leading authority on neutrons who’d also been Segrè’s mentor.

Chamberlain’s doctoral project was a successful experiment on the diffraction of slow neutrons in liquids.  He was awarded his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago in 1948. He immediately returned to UC Berkeley, where he accepted a teaching position, (he would become a full professor in 1958) and was reunited with Segrè at Lawrence’s Radiation Laboratory, which is known today as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

At Lawrence’s Lab, Chamberlain, Segrè and Wiegand made use of the powerful particle accelerators – called atom smashers at the time – to undertake an extensive series of experiments on the interactions between protons (proton-proton scattering) and the polarization of smashed atomic nuclei. In 1954, Lawrence commissioned the Bevatron accelerator, a machine that was built to go after the antiproton, a subatomic particle whose existence had been predicted in 1928. Two teams were assembled to find the elusive particle.  One team was led by Segrè and Chamberlain and included Wiegand and Thomas Ypsilantis.

The antiproton experiments of Segrè and Chamberlain and their collaborators began the first week of August in 1955. On September 21st, the future Nobel laureates and their team got their first evidence of the antiproton based on measurements of particle momentum and velocity.  The paper announcing their historic discovery was published in the November 1, 1955 issue of Physical Review Letters. It was reported the following day in the New York Times under the headline: “New Atom Particle Found; Termed a Negative Proton.”

Having won the Nobel Prize at the relatively young age of 39, Chamberlain would remain a highly productive scientist on the frontiers of particle physics for a great many years afterwards. After initial studies of the interactions of antiprotons with hydrogen, deuterium and other elements, he was a member of the team that used antiprotons to produce antineutrons.  In the 1960s, he lead a pioneering exploration of the relationships between nuclear forces and the spin of protons and neutrons, that lasted some twenty years.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, prior to his official retirement, he was an active member of the group of Berkeley Lab scientists, led by David Nygren, who developed the Time Projection Chamber, or TPC, a particle detector that has become the workhorse of today’s high energy and nuclear physics research.

Herbert Steiner, a long-time collaborator and former student of Chamberlain said this about him at a celebration in honor of his 75th birthday. “I think many years ago that Owen must have learned a few basic concepts very well, and in the interim he developed an uncanny ability to put this basic knowledge together in his own unique way to address whatever question or problem may have been posed. While most of us would sit around pondering and chewing on our hamburger, Owen would make some seemingly irrelevant comments, which upon closer scrutiny were the answer.  I suspect Owen must often have wondered what was wrong with the rest of us when we didn’t immediately come up with his obvious solution by ourselves.”

Gerson Goldhaber, another long-time colleague of Chamberlain who also played a key role in the antiproton quest said, “I have known Owen since I came to Berkeley in 1953, he was not only an outstanding scientist but also a great humanitarian whose remarkable creativity made the antiproton experiment a success.”

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said, "Owen Chamberlain was an example of Berkeley's best - a brilliant researcher with a piercing intellect, and a gifted and caring teacher.  He's the last of the Nobel generation at Cal that emerged from the Manhattan Project and, with E. O. Lawrence's cyclotron, changed the face of physics."

Chamberlain was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to his scientific efforts, in his later years he also became an outspoken activist for nuclear arms control and other issues of social concern.  In the 1960s Chamberlain was a supporter of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, and a strong advocate for increased minority recruitment and enrollment there.  He spoke out against the repression of scientists in the former Soviet Union, demonstrated against the Vietnam War, and was a founder of the nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s.

“As a Nobelist, I’d been made prominent and well-known,” he once said in an interview.  “My advice was sought in a number of areas and I felt a responsibility to speak up on important issues.”

Chamberlain is survived by his wife, Senta Pugh-Chamberlain (née Gaiser) of Berkeley, and four children by his first wife, Beatrice Babette Copper, who died in 1988 – daughters Karen Chamberlain of Tampa, Fla.; Lynne Guenther of Ithaca, N.Y.; Pia Chamberlain of San Jose, Calif.; and son Darol of Ithaca, N.Y. He also is survived by step-daughters Mary Pugh of Toronto, Canada, and Anne Pugh of Oakland, Calif. A second wife, June Steingart Greenfield, died in 1991.

Funeral and memorial arrangements are pending.