Pief Panofsky: a great, great guy

I feel pretty fortunate to have known Pief — a larger-than-life Stanford physicist — whom I came across through my studies in nuclear detection. Just last week I was actively debating muon detection techniques with with him and others before I found out he passed away suddenly on Monday. To me, he will remain one of the best examples of someone who puts objectivity, physics, and principles first — politics second. In spite of or even because this he accomplished so darn much in his lifetime.

The lectures at Pief Panofsky’s memorial last Friday by the former directors of SLAC, the former Stanford President, and Sid Drell were inspiring, humorous, and impressive — well summarized by this article in the San Jose Mercury News. He has a forthcoming book called that he wanted to live to see published called Panofsky on Physics, Politics, and Peace: Pief Remembers. Also see this piece in the Washington Post which mentiones his nonproliferation contributions.

A few things the article did not mention. Sid Drell described Panofsky commitment to principle and the substance of his lecture is essentially contained in this article from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Panofsky had made the proposal for SLAC to the federal government for $160+ million in 1960s dollars. When it came time to approval, the government was insisting on a clause whereby the the DoD would be given rights to perform any experiment as they deem necessary since it was federally funded–many other universities agreed to such clauses. With the support of Stanford and risking the entire project proposal that he had worked on for over four years, Panofsky pushed back and said that he would agree to these experiments provided there was mutual understanding about the experiment between Stanford and the government.

Panofsky also had created a unique system of “bottoms up” innovation at SLAC described by one of the Nobel prize winners who spoke there. Without approval required, people at the lab could get $10-20K to perform experiments. Then if those went well, the next level of managers could get ~$100K for more elaborate experiments also without approval of the lab directors. Larger experiments would require funding from funding agencies of course, but this system allowed a flexibility of experimentation — which is being threatened by recent funding crunches from federal grant agencies who want to know how money is being used for each experiment.

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