HEAD High Energy Astrophysics Division

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December 22, 1997 Contact: Steve Koppes
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David N. Schramm, 1945-1997

David N. Schramm, one of the world’s leading astrophysicists, was killed Friday, Dec. 19, when the twin-engine plane he was piloting crashed outside of Denver. He was en route from his home in Chicago to his second home in Aspen, Colo. The cause of the crash is being investigated. Schramm, Vice President for Research and Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor in the Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago, was 52.

Schramm was a world leader in theoretical astrophysics and perhaps the leading authority on the Big-Bang model of the formation of the universe. He did important work across the discipline of astrophysics, and he is more responsible than any other individual for the recent merging of the fields of particle physics, nuclear physics and astrophysics in the study of the early universe.

Physicist Stephen Hawking said, “All I can say is that David was larger than life in many ways. His death is a great loss to physics, his friends and the Aspen Center for Physics.”

Michael Turner, Chairman of the department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at Chicago, said, “Dave was one of the giants of modern cosmology and a towering figure in astrophysics. He was also a tireless proponent of the importance of basic scientific research.”

Schramm’s most important work was in cosmology–the study of the very early universe–and the connection between particle physics, nuclear physics and cosmology.

His most fundamental contribution may have been his calculation of the number of families of elementary particles in the universe. At a time when two families of particles were known, and when most physicists assumed that many more families of particles would be found, Schramm and his colleagues boldly predicted that physicists would probably find only one more family.

In the book Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists, by Alan Lightman and Roberta Brower, Schramm described the response: “We got a lot of flack from a lot of people, saying ‘Oh it’s crazy to say something like that.’”

But later, in 1989, his prediction was confirmed by experiments at particle accelerators in Stanford and Geneva, marking the first time that astronomy had been used to make a fundamental discovery in physics, rather than the very common reverse.

Schramm also did much of the important work to show how the light elements–including hydrogen, deuterium, helium and lithium–were produced in the Big Bang. That work was considered crucial to the establishment of the current “hot Big Bang theory” of the universe’s birth.

His calculation of the amount of “ordinary matter” in the universe helped show that it accounted for only a fraction of the universe’s mass, leading to the bold prediction that “exotic dark matter” comprises most of the universe.

Hugo Sonnenschein, President of the University of Chicago, said, “David was an extraordinary scientist, and he was also a gifted teacher of students at all levels–from those taking their first college course in science to those engaged in research at the frontiers of science.

“He was celebrated for his contributions throughout astrophysics–from the creation of the heavy elements in dying stars to the formation of the universe in the Big Bang. As our Vice President for Research, he was an enormously effective advocate for scientific research to the government and to the public.

“If scientists were to be described with reference to the characteristics of the subatomic particles they study, David was the highest-energy physicist of all. Combine that with his brilliance, his generosity and his taste for excellence in everything he touched, and you have a scientist and teacher of the very first magnitude. He will be greatly missed by his many friends and colleagues at the University and throughout the world.”

Sir Martin Rees, Royal Society Professor at Cambridge University, said “What was remarkable about Schramm was his immense dynamism, both intellectually and physically–he seemed to live his life at double speed. He had, for the last 25 years, been a real driving force in cosmology and not only made great advances of his own, but was a great stimulus and tireless advocate for the whole field. He was a great popularizer, a marvelous expositor and a true inspiration.”

John Bahcall, Professor of Natural Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, said, “I think Dave had an almost unique influence on the flow of physics in the last couple of decades by his leadership, and by showing the importance of and the applications of particle physics to astrophysics and cosmology.

“On a personal level he always was an enthusiastic inspiration to all of us. He was excited about the latest results in theory or in experiment and he always jumped to the next level of insight. Everything he did was combined with a sense of fun and excitement which he shared with everybody.”

Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate and former director of Fermilab, said, “David Schramm was a man who was eternal, and competent in everything. His death is a huge loss. He was everywhere and very active, and thought very broadly about science and its role in society. He was one of the major architects of our present model of the creation of the universe, and was someone who was always a leader.” Schramm and Lederman co-authored a book, From Quarks to the Cosmos: Tools of Discovery, which tried to explain to the general public how the outer space of the cosmos and the inner space of quarks are connected.

Jim Peebles, the Albert Einstein Professor in Science at Princeton University, said, “Although many people have worked on what we now think of as the standard theory of the Big Bang–that the light elements originated in the very early universe–I can’t think of anyone who so forcefully delved into so many issues from the particle physics side as David Schramm. He was a great leader in astronomy and cosmology, and he was also a very thoughtful man who had a great sense of responsibility to the field and to the younger people in it. He was a very vigorous human being who had a great sense of joie-de-vivre. He was an enthusiastic mountaineer, hiker and skier, and was a personal friend as well as a close colleague.”

Schramm joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1974, and built the cosmology group at Chicago into one of the largest and most preeminent in the world. At Fermilab, he and Lederman established a research group that brought together, for the first time, researchers who study the universe and those who study the fundamental particles of matter.

Schramm was born on Oct. 25, 1945, in St. Louis, Mo., and received his M.A. and S.B. in physics from MIT in 1967. He studied physics at Caltech with Gerald Wasserberg and Nobel laureate William Fowler, and received his Ph.D. in 1971.

Schramm was a champion Greco-Roman wrestler who competed in college and graduate school, and was a finalist in the 1968 Olympic trials. At Caltech, he coached the wrestling team to three consecutive conference championships, and continued his involvement with wrestling at Austin and Chicago.

He was a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech until July, 1972, when he became assistant professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1974, he joined the University of Chicago as Associate Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Enrico Fermi Institute, and was promoted to Professor in 1977. At that time he also joined the Department of Physics. He was Chairman of Astronomy & Astrophysics from 1977 to 1984, and was designated the Louis Block Professor of the Physical Sciences in 1982. He became Vice President for Research in 1995.

In 1994, he received the University’s Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching. A member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1986, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1995 and a foreign fellow of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1995.

Schramm has served on the boards of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the Astrophysical Research Consortium and the Aspen Center for Physics, where he was chairman from 1992 to 1997. At the time of his death, he was on the Board of Governors for Argonne National Laboratory. He was also chairman of the board on physics and astronomy of the National Research Council from 1989 to 1997. He has served as a consultant to Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Aerospace Corporation and Hansen Planetarium.

Elihu Abrahams, the current chairman of the board of the Aspen Center for Physics, said, “David was a central figure in defining the personality of the Aspen Center for Physics. His contributions were spectacular. During his years as trustee he nurtured the participation of outstanding young physicists. In his role as chairman of the board he was essentially single-handedly responsible for the success of the physics center’s fundraising program for a new building.”

In 1993, Schramm was awarded the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize from the American Physical Society “for his manifold contributions to nuclear astrophysics.” He received the Helen B. Warner Prize from the American Astronomical Society in 1978 and has received numerous other awards and named lectureships.

Schramm was the author or coauthor of more than 350 scientific papers and 15 books, including The Shadows of Creation: Dark Matter and the Structure of the Universe, with E.M. Riordan.

Roberta Bernstein, who was Schramm’s assistant for more than eight years, said, “Dave was someone who had unbelievable energy. He kept the fires burning in himself and everyone else. It was as if he gave off vibes of energy that nurtured and energized everyone around him. One of his favorite expressions was ‘don’t let things fall into a black hole.’ Dave never did, and with his enthusiasm, no one around him did either.”

He is survived by his wife Judith; his sons D. Brett, of San Francisco, and D. Cary, of Los Angeles; his mother, Betty, of St. Louis; his brothers Daniel, of St. Louis, and Wayne, of Jefferson City, Mo. He also had one stepson, Eric Ward, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; and three stepdaughters, Tegan Ward, of Denver; Laura Zielinski, of Seattle; and Amanda Zielinski, of San Francisco.

A funeral service will be held in Aspen, Colo., on Friday, Dec. 26, at noon, in the Prince of Peace Chapel. A memorial service at the University is being planned. A memorial fund is being established at the University of Chicago, and donations can be made through the department of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

 

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