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Professor emeritus George Bekefi dies at 70

Professor emeritus George Bekefi, a physics researcher and faculty member for 38 years, died August 17 at his home in Brookline. His family said the cause of death was leukemia.

Dr. Bekefi, who was 70, retired from the MIT faculty this summer.

He was widely known for his contributions in the field of plasma physics, particularly in the production of extremely high-powered microwave generators and, more recently, in the development of free-electron lasers which are used as power sources in high-frequency bands. The free-electron lasers are useful in a wide variety of areas including communications, bulk chemical processing, fusion, and cutting, drilling and welding.

In 1976, Dr. Bekefi and a staff researcher, Dr. Thaddeus Orzechowski, developed a source of radiation that produced bursts of microwaves some 50 times more powerful than the largest conventional microwave generators then in existence.

Dr. Bekefi also was highly regarded as a teacher. In an article he submitted this summer to his department's newsletter, he wrote: "Revealing to hundreds of undergraduates the mysteries of physics and guiding some 50 graduates towards their MS and PhD degrees, I am retiring after 38 fun-drenched years. Throughout, it has been a most delightful experience."

Professor Bekefi was born on March 14, 1925 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in his words to "a painter father and mysticism-oriented mother." After occupation of that country by Nazi Germany in 1939, he made his way to England under the aegis of the British government in its effort to rescue Jewish children.

He received a bachelor of science degree from University College in London in 1948 with first-class honors in physics and mathematics. Then, "itching for some adventures in the New World," he went to McGill University in Montreal as an instructor in the physics department. He received a master's degree there in 1950 and PhD in 1952.

He remained at McGill until 1957, first as research associate and later as assistant professor. He joined MIT's Plasma Physics Group in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, with which he was affiliated throughout his career, and became an assistant professor in the Department of Physics in 1961. He was promoted to associate professor in 1964 and professor in 1967.

In his article for the departmental newsletter, Professor Bekefi said his arrival at MIT opened an entirely new field of research for him.

"Gaseous electronics soon began to play an important role in the operations of the newly discovered laser where the ionized gas became the lasing medium," he wrote. "At the Second Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, held in 1958 in Geneva, controlled thermonuclear fusion was declassified and thus opened a vista for many young scientists. George and his students began to explore linear and nonlinear wave propagation in hot plasmas and the various emission processes from this novel medium. In the mid-1970s George was ready to explore new fields. It was his good fortune that at an earlier period. he met and worked with Hans Motz, the pioneer of free-electron lasers. And thus began George's love affair with relativistic electron beams and ways of coaxing them to emit coherent electromagnetic radiation," work than he continued until his retirement.

In 1966, Professor Bekefi was a Visiting Fellow at St. Catherine's College, Oxford, and in 1972 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, working at the University of Paris and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He was the author or co-author of three books and more than 180 scientific papers, and the recipient of seven patents. The books included Radiation Processes in Plasmas (1966) and, in 1977, an undergraduate text (with A.H. Barrett), Electromagnetic Vibrations, Waves and Radiation. He also was editor and co-author of a monograph, Principles of Laser Plasmas, published in 1976.

His awards included this year's Free-Electron Laser Award by the American Physical Society; the Gold Honorary Medal for Merit in the field of Physics Sciences from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic in 1993; and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' Plasma Science and Applications Prize in 1989. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and chairman of the Society's Division of Plasma Physics in 1978.

He leaves his wife, Chaia; a son, Ariel; and a daughter, Tamara, all of Brookline.

There was a graveside service Sunday, August 20, at the Temple Emeth Memorial Park in West Roxbury.


Dr. David Shoemaker

Dr. David P. Shoemaker, 75, a professor of chemistry at MIT from 1951 to 1970 who later was chairman of the chemistry department at Oregon State University for 11 years, died August 24 in Corvallis, OR, where he resided. He retired as a professor emeritus in 1984.

His survivors include his wife, Clara Brink Shoemaker, a fellow chemist at MIT who collaborated with him on many research projects; a son, Robert of Sheffield, England; and three brothers, Frank of Princeton, NJ, Harry of Lebanon, NJ, and Sydney of Ithaca, NY.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 30, 1995.

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