Lidsky of nuclear engineering dies; questioned fusion power


Retired professor Lawrence M. Lidsky of nuclear engineering, who went public with his reservations about the efficacy of fusion as an energy source after devoting his career to its development, died Friday at his home in Newton after a 17-year battle with cancer. He was 66 years old.

Lidsky, a Cornell University graduate whose MIT doctoral thesis in 1962 was titled "Plasma Generation and Acceleration," was assistant director of the Plasma Fusion Center when he published an article in 1983 titled "The Trouble With Fusion" in Technology Review. He wrote the piece, Lidsky said at the time, because "I couldn't get an internal discussion going. Some didn't care and some didn't want to know." A short time after the article appeared, Lidsky resigned his position at the Plasma Fusion Center. Congress reduced funding for the fusion program by 5 percent the next year. It was renamed the Plasma Science and Fusion Center in December 1997.

"Larry Lidsky was one of the smartest people I ever met," said Professor Jeffrey P. Freidberg, head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering. "He was often way ahead of his time in delivering insightful and crucial analysis of the prospects of both fusion and fission power. In the fusion area, Professor Lidsky was one of the earliest engineers to point out some of the very, very difficult engineering challenges facing the program and how these challenges would affect the ultimate desirability of fusion energy. As one might imagine, his messages were not always warmly received initially, but they have nevertheless stood the test of time."

Lidsky later became a passionate advocate of the development of meltdown-proof Modular High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactors, which depend upon nuclear fission rather than fusion for their energy. Initially, the idea engendered little enthusiasm in the United States, but in recent years the idea resurfaced "in a much more friendly environment," said Freidberg. "Our department is leading a national research effort to construct a large-scale test facility based on this concept," he said. "Many of the technical ideas are directly attributable to Larry's early analysis." Such plants are now being developed in Japan and elsewhere.

Lidsky, born in New York on Oct. 15, 1935, grew up in Brooklyn and attended Brooklyn Technical High School. He received a B.Eng. from Cornell with honors in 1958. In March of that year, he met his future wife, Judith Lockser, who was studying government. They were married on Aug. 31, 1958. Loren Lidsky, their oldest child, said, "My mother was the greatest influence on his life. They always said that they grew up together."

Upon graduation, Lidsky matriculated in the nuclear engineering graduate program at MIT while his wife attended Harvard Law School. After receiving the Ph.D. in 1962, he joined the faculty as an assistant professor. He became an associate professor in 1968 and full professor in 1976. He was appointed associate director of the Plasma Fusion Center in 1978.

He was the founder and first editor of the Journal of Fusion Energy and a major contributor to the departmental report, "Nuclear Power Plant Innovation for the 1990s: A Preliminary Assessment," published in 1984.

Lidsky was the guiding force and one of the founders of the MIT Faculty Newsletter in 1988 and served on the editorial board until his death. He retired from the faculty last summer and hoped to spend more time at a family home in Diamond Cove, Maine, which he helped design.

A consummate scientist and engineer, he designed and built an innovative kayak and was active in a wine-making group that labeled its wine "Mauvais Garcon" ("bad boy" in French). While friends, family and students considered him a Renaissance man, Lidsky described himself in simpler terms. "I teach," he always replied when asked what he did. Lidsky supervised more than 80 graduate theses.

Dr. Robert Friedman, head of the wine-making group, said, "Larry was a true life force--witty, intelligent, irreverant, opinionated, enthusiastic, thoughtful, joyful, charming and a caring person. I will miss him. We will miss him. We all will never forget him."

Lidsky was diagnosed with renal cell cancer in September 1984. After 11 years in remission, he underwent a series of treatments, many of them experimental. He had developed a network of cancer researchers with whom he consulted regularly and his own recent research centered on the production of medically important isotopes via photoneutronic processes. He was the holder of numerous patents.

Lidsky served as a consultant to the US General Accounting Office, the Office of Technical Assessment, the National Science Foundation, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Argonne National Laboratory. He consulted on energy programs and policies in Japan, the Netherlands and Norway and lectured widely.

Lidsky was a member of the American Nuclear Society, the American Physical Society and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In addition to his wife, Lidsky is survived by his mother, Ada Lidsky of Waltham; two sons, Loren of Newton and David of Oakland, Calif.; a daughter, Jane Gray of Franklin; two brothers, Arthur of Belmont and Ted of Manalapen, N.J.; a sister, Judy of Valley Stream, N.Y.; and seven grandchildren.

Services were private. Contributions in Lidsky's honor may be made to the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), 34 Deloss St., Framingham, MA 01702.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 6, 2002.

Topics: Obituaries

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