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May 25, 2000

OBITUARY: Norman Austern

Norman Austern

As a nuclear physicist and a lover of literature, music, history, philosophy and archeology, Pitt professor Norman Austern applied his brainpower to the quest for knowledge.

As death approached, Austern made sure that his brain would continue contributing in that quest. He willed the organ — ravaged by his long struggle with Parkinson's disease — to Emory University in Atlanta, where he underwent experimental surgery in 1993 to treat the disease.

"He wanted researchers at Emory to be able to correlate the data they'd obtained on him at the time of his surgery with the condition of his brain after death. He hoped that this would benefit research on Parkinson's," said Austern's colleague and friend of 35 years, Pitt physics and astronomy department chairperson Frank Tabakin.

"That tells you something about Norman and his dedication to science," Tabakin said. "He liked the idea that he would still be doing science, in effect, even after he was dead."

Austern, 74, died May 15, 2000, in his Oakland home of complications from Parkinson's.

"He was an outstanding physicist and teacher, a loyal friend and extremely devoted to his wife and their four children," Tabakin said. "But the thing that most struck me about him was his broad knowledge. He specialized as a nuclear theorist, but on almost any topic you could bring up, he had read the classic works on it.

"It could be frustrating when you got into disagreements with Norman because, so often, he turned out to be right. It's easier to be understanding of someone else's strong opinions when they turn out to be wrong," Tabakin said, with a laugh.

Tabakin recalled a coffee break years ago when jelly from a jelly doughnut squirted onto his tie. Austern noticed Tabakin's stained tie and said, "Obviously, you have never studied jelly doughnut theory."

"I didn't know there was a jelly doughnut theory," Tabakin replied, playing along.

"Well, there is," Austern said, obligating Tabakin to ask what the theory was.

Austern proudly explained: "One should seek the hole in the doughnut and bite on it so the jelly squirts in your mouth."

"And he was right!" Tabakin remembered. "That is the best way to eat a jelly doughnut. It's kind of a dumb little story, but it shows how methodical Norman was about everything he did. He loved to acquire inside knowledge about things.

"Norman had a very direct style of communicating," Tabakin continued. "He could seem harsh if you didn't know him well, but it was just a veneer. He was actually very compassionate."

Austern was born in New York City in 1926. With two considerably older brothers and his parents' frequent relocations around the city, Austern had a "fairly isolated childhood," he wrote in an April 1989 autobiographical essay. He spent much time reading, visiting museums, tinkering with discarded radios and hiking. (He remained an avid hiker, trekking 30-40 miles in Los Alamos and other scenic places until his Parkinson's disease forced him to cut back his mileage and, eventually, cease hiking.) At puberty, Austern lost his hair. "Although this eventually kept me from being drafted, it created additional social isolation," Austern wrote.

Austern's social and intellectual lives blossomed after he decided, upon entering junior high school, to become a physicist. Austern said he never regretted his decision, although it "originated in ignorance," he confessed. "My major motivation," he wrote, "was that I had heard of Einstein, and I knew he was one [a physicist], whatever it was. He replaced Edison, my previous hero, whom I had admired in a movie. I also recall wanting to avoid chemistry, because supposedly that would involve too much memorization."

Austern earned a bachelor's degree from The Cooper Union in 1946 and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1951.

He was a research associate at Cornell University from 1951 to 1954 and a scientist at New York University's Institute of Mathematical Sciences from 1954 to 1956. He was a Fulbright Research Scholar in Australia from 1957 to 1958 and from 1968 to 1969. He held several visiting professorships and fellowships in England, France and Japan.

Austern joined the Pitt physics faculty in 1956 as an assistant professor. He was promoted to full professor in 1962, and retired in 1994.

He published more than 100 journal articles. His textbook, "Direct Nuclear Reaction Theories," was published in 1970. Austern specialized in theoretical nuclear physics, including nuclear reactions and electro-magnetic effects in nuclei.

At a Heinz Chapel memorial service for Austern on Sunday, Pitt physics professor emeritus Bernard Cohen recalled his department's glory years of the late 1950s, when Pitt research helped lead to an understanding of the structure of the nucleus. At the time, Austern organized a weekly seminar series at which he clearly answered questions about theoretical physics "in a way that an experimentalist could understand," Cohen said — in contrast to the long-winded, formal, mathematical answers Cohen had gotten from theorists prior to that.

Austern was "intellectually completely honest, and disdained being competitive," Cohen said. "In tennis, he didn't like to keep score. He never tried to 'butter up' to the power structure either in the scientific community or in campus politics…. He never sought recognition, and while he did get a lot of recognition from the scientific community, he never got as much as he deserved."

Austern's strong will enabled him to continue working long after his Parkinson's had seriously impaired his movements and speech, according to Tabakin. "Toward the end, I think Norman's willpower was the only thing keeping him alive — that and his wife, Wilma, who was just wonderfully devoted. He literally died in her arms at home, which is not where his physicians had wanted him to be. About a month ago they said he should be in a hospice, but Norman and Wilma wanted him to be at home when he died."

When Tabakin last visited Austern, in April, he wasn't sure whether his dying friend recognized him anymore. "But then, as I went to leave, Norman managed with great difficulty and effort to say, 'Goodbye, Frank.'"

In addition to his wife, Austern is survived by daughters Linda Austern of Evanston, Ill., and Ruth Mostern of Berkeley, Calif.; and sons Matthew Austern of Alameda, Calif. and Jay Austern of Denver.

— Bruce Steele

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