Arthur Kerman, professor emeritus of physics, dies at 88

Arthur Kerman

Former Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Center for Theoretical Physics director made important contributions to the study of nuclear structure and reactions.

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Sandi Miller
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Department of Physics

Arthur K. Kerman, professor emeritus of physics and a distinguished international researcher in MIT’s Center for Theoretical Physics (CTP) and Laboratory for Nuclear Science, passed away May 11 at the age of 88.

He was known for his work on the theory of the structure of nuclei and on the theory of nuclear reactions. 

“He was a wonderful friend and colleague, accomplishing many important things in the creation and promotion of science,” says Professor Emeritus Earle Lomon of the CTP, and Kerman’s longtime friend. “We will greatly miss his friendship and guidance.” 

As Mike Campbell of the University of Rochester poetically says, “The world is a little more empty and quiet without Arthur in it.”

Arthur Kent Kerman was born May 3, 1929, in Montreal. He graduated in 1950 from McGill University, where he studied physics and mathematics. At MIT, under Victor Frederick Weisskopf, he completed his PhD in nuclear surface oscillations in 1953. From 1953 to 1954, he studied with R.F. Christy at Caltech under a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship, and in 1954 he began a two-year stay at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. 

“With the presence of Niels Bohr, Aage Bohr, Ben Mottelson, and Willem V.R. Malkus, there were many physicists from Europe and elsewhere, including MIT’s Dave Frisch, making the Institute for Physics an exciting place to be,” recalls Lomon. Kerman’s close friend since the early 1940s, when they were Boy Scouts in Montreal, Lomon studied with Kerman at McGill, MIT, and Copenhagen.

Kerman’s research included nuclear and high-energy physics, astrophysics, and the development of advanced particle detectors. His interests in theoretical nuclear physics included nuclear quantum chromodynamics-relativistic heavy-ion physics, nuclear reactions, and laser accelerators. He developed a set of nucleon-nucleon potentials, which were found to be useful for the study of nuclear matter and finite nuclei. 

Kerman published or co-published more than 100 papers. He wrote papers on the effects of the Coriolis interaction in rotational nuclei; quasi-spin; the application of the Hartree-Fock method to the calculation of the ground state properties of spherical and deformed nuclei; pairing correlations in nuclei; and the possible existence of transuranic islands of stability. In his research on reactions, his papers discussed the scattering of fast particles by nuclei. He also wrote papers on intermediate structure in nuclear reactions; on the properties of isobar analog states; and strangeness analog resonances. He was an early advocate of the importance of quarks for understanding nuclear physics. He developed a nucleon-nucleon potential with a soft core that fits nucleon-nucleon scattering data as well as potentials with a hard repulsive core do, which was found to be useful in the study of what is needed beyond scattering data to determine the properties of nuclear matter and finite nuclei.

Kerman joined the MIT faculty in 1956 as an assistant professor of physics. In the summers of 1959 and 1960 he was a research associate at the Argonne National Laboratory, and during this period he also was a consultant to the Shell Development Company of Houston, and the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. He also participated in the Physical Science Study Committee — a group of high school and university physics professors — to write a more accessible and engaging high school physics textbook. He was a consultant with Educational Services Inc. from 1959 to 1966, and collaborated in the quantum physics part of the experimental course Physics: A New Introductory Course (nicknamed PANIC), produced by the Education Research Center at MIT. He became an associate professor in 1960, and the following year, he went on academic leave and was “professeur d’echange” at the University of Paris under a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. He became professor in 1964. 

In the early 1960s, Kerman traveled with physics professors Sheldon Glashow, then of the University of California at Berkeley and now of Boston University, and Charles Schwartz of Berkeley for a month-long visit as potential members to JASON, a scientific advisory group in Washington, sponsored by the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, among other government groups.

“We were asked at the beginning of our particular interests,” recalls Glashow. “What they were getting at was whether we wanted ‘war’ work or ‘peace’ work. Everybody, except us three ‘lefties’ including Arthur, chose ‘war.’ Our ‘peaceful' challenge was to examine all available sources, whether classified or not, to assess the potential value of airborne or satellite surveillance of the Soviet Union and to produce a supposedly unclassified document. We did our work, and our document was promptly classified. We never heard back from JASON, nor did we care.” 

From 1976-1983, Kerman was the director of MIT’s Center for Theoretical Physics, and from 1983 to 1992, he was director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science. For many years, Kerman was a leading force in pushing for new initiatives in science. He had various longstanding consulting relationships with Argonne, Brookhaven, Knolls Atomic Power, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos Scientific, and Oak Ridge national laboratories, and with the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST). 

Kerman advised 43 students, from 1958 to 2006. Kerman officially retired from MIT after 47 years, and retained the title of professor emeritus from 1999 until his passing.

He served on many influential bodies, including the Visiting Committees of Bartol Research Foundation, Princeton-Penn Accelerator, the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Inertial Confinement Fusion; National Ignition Facility Programs Review Committee at Livermore; Directorate and Division Review Committees at Livermore; the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider Policy Committee at Brookhaven; Stanford Linear Accelerator Center Scientific Policy Committee; Secretary of Energy Fusion Policy Advisory Committee; the White House Science Council Panel on Science and Technology; the Department of Energy’s Inertial Confinement Fusion Advisory Committee, and the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center Advisory Board. At Los Alamos National Laboratory, he was on the Physics Division Advisory Committee and the Theory Advisory Committee. At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he served on the Director’s Advisory Committee, the Physics and Space Technology Advisory Committee, and as chair, the Director’s Review Committee for the Physics Directorate. 

Kerman was made a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the New York Academy of Sciences; he was named a Guggenheim Fellow in Natural Sciences. He was associate editor of Reviews of Modern Physics.

Many describe Kerman as an outspoken advocate in his field. “He never hesitated, regardless of the consequences, to speak out and to support me when called upon in different circumstances to analyze programs that involved large-scale funding while lacking adequate justification,” says MIT  professor of physics Bruno Coppi, Kerman’s friend since the 1960s. “We both had to take a public stand, and time proved that our assessments were correct.”

“He was, until the end, a valued advisor to different national laboratories and to the highest levels of the Department of Energy,” Coppi adds.

In his presentation, “Three Decades of Interacting with Arthur Kerman,” Michael N. Kreisler, SAIC contractor to the National Nuclear Security Administration at the Department of Energy, and physics professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, had spoken at the 2012 CERN International Conference on Nuclear Reaction Mechanisms about Kerman’s influence on policy within the scientific community: “Arthur either knows everyone of importance or had them as students. I continue to be amazed at his ability to get appointments with everyone in DOE or at the laboratories […] If you want something done, convince Arthur and he’ll be an influential advocate.”

Kreisler added, “Whenever you work on an exciting new science project, Arthur is sure to tell you that he was involved in the very early stages of that project. While it sometimes seems impossible for him to have actually done as much as he says, I know from experience that it really is true.” 

However, Kerman was known for his calm, quiet style of leadership. “He had an extraordinary capacity to think on his feet, inspiring collaborators,” says Lomon. “Although, he had much less interest in writing papers, which was a source of some frustration to the same collaborators.” 

Kerman kept frequent contact with his friends and collaborators, despite his declining health. Kerman was coming regularly to weekly physics department lunches. “He delighted in reminiscing about the special atmosphere we had in our department during the times of the ‘Copenhagen Table,’” says Coppi, who met weekly with Kerman, up until a week before his passing away. 

After one of his stays in Europe, Kerman had brought back a large table that was kept within the Center for Theoretical Physics. “All active theorists and experimentalists, including Herman Feshbach, Felix Villars, and Martin Deutsch, interested in developments of theory in our department and outside, would gather around it,” Coppi recalls. 

“I always enjoyed and learned from our lively physics discussions,” recalls Professor John Negele. “His shared interest in high-performance computing and extensive contacts in DOE enabled us to obtain a supercomputer at MIT to study the role of quarks in nuclear physics from first principles.”

Despite health problems in his later years, his commitment to physics and service to the country still saw him traveling all over the world, as well as back to campus, well into his 80s. Until several days before he died at age 88, he was working with Mark Mueller on a new theory of dark matter and energy.

“In recent years Arthur was deeply concerned about the trends in funding and management of research, and of physics in particular, both at the national and international level,” says Coppi. “Arthur will be greatly missed at MIT, in our department, and in the international scientific community.” 

A long-time resident of Winchester, Massachusetts, Kerman was the husband of Enid Ehrlich for 64 years. He was extremely attached to and proud of his children. Eldest son Ben Kerman ’81, who is an MIT biology alumnus and physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital, lives in Hingham, Massachusetts. Dan is a mechanical engineer at the Federal Aviation Administration and lives in New Hampshire. Elizabeth is an architect and lives in San Francisco. Melissa has her own creative arts and crafts business and lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jaime got his PhD in physics from Stanford University, works at Lincoln Lab and lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. Arthur is also survived by 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Gifts in Kerman’s name may be made to the Arthur Kerman Fellowship Fund, #3302540. Gifts will support fellowships in the Department of Physics, with a preference for fellows conducting research in theoretical physics. For more information, contact Director of Development Erin McGrath at 617-452-2807.

Topics: Faculty, Physics, Laboratory for Nuclear Science, Center for Theoretical Physics, Obituaries, School of Science

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