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Kurt Gottfried, Physicist and Foe of Nuclear Weapons, Dies at 93


Kurt Gottfried, a theoretical physicist who barely escaped the brutal reality of 1 world war and devoted his profession to stopping one other, died on Aug. 25 in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 93.

His death, in a nursing home where he and his wife had been living for the last 10 years, was confirmed by his son, David.

Dr. Gottfried, who fled the Nazis when he was 9, became an outspoken opponent of nuclear weaponry, a champion of scientists within the Soviet Union and South America who were political dissidents, and a fierce critic of the George W. Bush administration’s environmental policy, which he said was grounded in research skewed to comport with the White House’s political agenda.

In 1969, Dr. Gottfried founded the Union of Concerned Scientists with the physicist Henry Way Kendall, his former roommate on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a future Nobel laureate. A nonpartisan organization, it lobbies to shift the nation’s research priorities from military technology to “the answer of pressing environmental and social problems.”

Dr. Gottfried said on the time that the world was undergoing a transformative revolution driven by “the relentless exploitation of scientific knowledge.”

“That a lot of these transformations have been immeasurably helpful goes without saying,” he said. “But, as with all revolutions, the technological revolution has released destructive forces and our society has did not address them.”

In 1999, 30 years after he helped to found the organization, Dr. Gottfried became its chairman. He served in that position until 2009.

In 2017, he told MIT Technology Review that his role in creating the organization “was rather more necessary than any of the science I’ve done.”

He rallied fellow scientists within the early Eighties to assist derail the Reagan administration’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, the ambitious missile defense system that became mocked as a “Star Wars” shield.

They argued that the initiative can be technologically futile, and that pursuit of space-based weapons amounted to an abandonment of the policy of mutually assured destruction, which until then had prevented nuclear conflict.

In an opinion essay in The Recent York Times, Dr. Gottfried and Hans Bethe, a fellow professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, where he taught for 35 years, warned that the event of antisatellite weapons “comes near a declaration of war on the Soviet Union.”

In 1983, he and a bunch of scientists, retired military officers and United States senators pressed Washington to open negotiations with the Soviet Union on a treaty that will go well beyond the vaguely worded 1967 agreement to ban the testing and use of weapons, nuclear and standard, in space.

His concern about nuclear power run amok was driven, partially, by his association with among the very scientists who had devised atomic bombs during and after World War II, and who subsequently became alarmed on the weapons’ destructive potential.

Amongst them were Victor Weisskopf, Dr. Gottfried’s thesis adviser at M.I.T.; Niels Bohr, with whom Dr. Gottfried studied in Copenhagen in 1959; and Professor Bethe.

He also joined a whole bunch of American scientists who pledged to curtail cooperative ventures with the Soviet Union in protest of its imprisonment of dissidents.

Public and political pressure contributed to the discharge in 1986 of the Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov, who had been jailed for a decade after forming the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group to watch the Soviet government’s compliance with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. After his release, Professor Orlov joined the physics faculty at Cornell.

Dr. Gottfried also helped free and recruit the physicist Elena Sevilla, who had been imprisoned in Argentina due to political activities of her husband, a newspaper reporter. Upon her release in 1978, she got here to Cornell to finish her graduate studies.

In 2004, complaining that the Bush administration was distorting scientific knowledge, particularly about climate change, Dr. Gottfried encouraged the Union of Concerned Scientists to form a program for scientific integrity, which successfully pressured the federal government to strengthen guidelines for research.

Kurt Gottfried was born on May 17, 1929, in Vienna. His father, Solomon, was a chemist but was barred by antisemitic laws from teaching or conducting research; as an alternative, he ran a factory that made ski equipment, bicycles and ice skates.

His mother, Augusta, who like his father had a doctorate in chemistry, passed for Aryan and was capable of arrange to flee with the family in 1938, when Kurt was 9, after their home was invaded on Kristallnacht.

They traveled through Germany to Belgium. Kurt attended school there for six months while the family awaited documents to immigrate to Montreal, where they resumed their manufacturing business.

Kurt studied engineering at McGill University in Montreal and may need joined his father’s business had certainly one of his professors, John David Jackson, not identified his potential and lured him into pursuing physics as an alternative. After graduating from McGill, he earned a doctorate in theoretical physics in 1955 from M.I.T., where his thesis adviser was Professor Weisskopf.

In 1964 Dr. Gottfried was hired as an associate professor at Cornell, where he was considered a mentor to a generation of distinguished scientists and government officials. He became a professor emeritus in 1998.

He also served on the senior staff of the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva.

“Kurt Gottfried’s necessary legacies included his students and the colleagues he inspired,” said Richard L. Garwin, a fellow physicist and fellow critic of the Strategic Defense Initiative. “Also, a crucial legacy is the 1988 book that Kurt co-edited with Bruce Blair of Yale, ‘Crisis, Stability and Nuclear War.’”

Dr. Gottfried also helped edit “The Fallacy of Star Wars” (1984) and “Reforging European Security: From Confrontation to Cooperation” (1990). In 1966 he published a highly regarded textbook, “Quantum Mechanics: Fundamentals.”

In 1955, Dr. Gottfried married Sorel Dickstein, who became his unofficial editor and adviser. She died in 2021. Along with his son, he’s survived by a daughter, Laura Gottfried; a sister, Ilse Matalon; and 4 grandchildren.

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