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Abraham Bers, professor emeritus of electrical engineering, dies at 85

Bers, a longtime member of the MIT community, was expert in plasma physics.
Professor Emeritus Abraham Bers
Professor Emeritus Abraham Bers
Photo: Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Abraham (Abe) Bers ScD ’59, professor emeritus of electrical engineering, died on Friday, Sept. 11 at the age of 85. Bers, who was recognized on campus for his trademark neatly squared bowties, was known both for his accomplishments in the field of plasma physics and for his contributions as a gifted educator.

Bers was born in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1930 and immigrated to Cali, Colombia, with his family in 1948. He entered the University of California at Berkeley the following year. A principal investigator in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) and the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, he joined the MIT faculty in 1959 after earning his BS at the University of California at Berkeley in 1953, his MS at MIT in 1955, and his ScD at MIT in 1959.

At MIT, Bers collaborated with physicists, electrical engineers, and nuclear engineers studying nuclear fusion as a power source. Bers’ work centered around understanding and quantifying the behavior of plasma, the highly energetic state of matter necessary for fusion to take place.

Together with Professor Richard Briggs, Bers made the first classifications of plasma wave instabilities in the 1960s. In later years, his research focused on radio-frequency methods for heating plasma in tokamaks, devices used to contain plasma in fusion reactors.

Bers lectured frequently at European universities and institutions, spending a sabbatical in the 1970s at the University of Paris. Together with Professor Jean-Loup Delcroix of the University of Paris, he authored the two-volume "Physique des Plasmas," written in French, in which he was fluent.

A longtime teacher of 6.651/8.613 (Introductory Plasma Physics I), Bers inspired generations of students to study plasma physics, and many of them have gone on to be leaders in the field themselves. As an educator, he was known for his meticulous lecture preparation, preparing each class as though teaching it for the first time. In the final months of his life, Bers completed a textbook, "Plasma Physics and Fusion Plasma Electrodynamics," to be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

“Abe was an outstanding plasma theorist and a gifted teacher,” said Miklos Porkolab, professor of physics at MIT. “He was well known for his mathematical rigor and logical explanations, not only in his papers and external lectures, but also in class at MIT.”

Bers held numerous patents, was a fellow of the IEEE, a member of the American Physical Society, and a frequent consultant to industry. He was the author of several books and book chapters, including one of the early classics on the subject of plasma physics and fusion energy, "Waves in Anisotropic Plasmas."

“Professor Bers had a tremendous impact on the department, and was a wonderful colleague,” said Anantha Chandrakasan, the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering and head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “He will be greatly missed.”   

He is survived by his wife, Anita (Nanny) Bers, his daughter Rachel Bers, his son Josh Bers, and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 16th at 12:30 p.m. in the MIT Chapel. 

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