Albert Wattenberg, 90, Pioneered Nuclear Energy
Albert Wattenberg, 90, retired University of Illinois physics professor and one of the scientists who worked with Enrico Fermi on the first controlled release of nuclear energy, died June 27 at Clark-Lindsey Village in Urbana.
Al was born in New York city, a few days after America entered World War I. He attended public schools in Manhattan, before entering City College of New York, where in the 1930s he first demonstrated his lifelong commitment to peace, freedom and justice by organizing several student strikes. He was president of his graduation class but refused to attend graduation because the officiating officer was friendly with the Italian Fascists.
In 1939 he began a graduate program in physics at Columbia University. When Mr. Fermi left Columbia to work on what would be the Manhattan project to build an atomic bomb, he recruited Al to accompany him to the University of Chicago, where on Dec. 2, 1942, in a squash court under the stands at Stagg Field, they inaugurated the era of atomic power.
In commemoration, the physicists shared a bottle of Chianti and all signed the bottle as a record of who was there. Al kept the bottle for many years before donating it to the national archives.
Al's recollection of the war years always conveyed the urgency the physicists felt as they worked on this project because they feared the Nazis would develop an atomic bomb first, yet he was ambivalent about the course of the Manhattan project as directed by General Leslie Groves.
When Mr. Fermi left to work on the bomb at Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, Al stayed in Chicago, and worked with Leo Szilard, who had theorized and patented the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, and who had drafted the letter Albert Einstein sent to President Roosevelt informing him of the possibility of atomic weapons.
In 1945, Al was one of the signers of the petition Szilard sent to the government declaring that the unannounced use of nuclear weapons on Japan at that stage of the war would be immoral.
After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Al was one of the founders in September 1945 of the peace-focused organization The Federation of Atomic Scientists, which began publishing the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, with its famed doomsday clock on the cover.
After the war, Al was given a fellowship at Chicago to complete the doctorate the war had interrupted. He finished in 1947 under the direction of Mr. Fermi and continued doing experiments with Mr. Fermi at the Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago.
In 1949, Al and colleague H. Lichtenberger directed the design, assembly and testing of the first enriched uranium heavy water reactor. In 1949 to 1950 he was director of the Nuclear Physics Division at Argonne. Argonne was focused on reactor design, and Al had become interested in the emerging fields of elementary particle physics. In addition, McCarthyism was beginning, and Al's previous political activities might have clouded his career at federal research facilities.
He left Argonne in 1950 and taught for a year at the University of Illinois before taking a senior research physicist position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He spent most of the rest of his working life chasing down mesons, charmed quarks and other parts of the atom that promised to unleash the mysteries of the universe. In 1958 he returned to the University of Illinois, where he was a professor until his retirement in 1986. He was the author of more than 90 articles in the journal Physics Review.
The Eisenhower administration Atoms for Peace program selected him to be an adviser to Japan, and he was the first nuclear physicist to visit that county in that capacity.
In his career at Illinois he performed numerous experiments on subatomic particles at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., and at laboratories around the world.
He remained active in the physics world in retirement, and became the editor of the History of Physics Newsletter. He had previously co-edited the collected works of Mr. Fermi and done similar historical work.
Al was often asked to share his knowledge of the dawn of the atomic era. He wrote a number of articles on the topic, contributed to other authors' research, and was regularly interviewed by radio shows such as Studs Terkel's and NPR's All Things Considered whenever there was an anniversary of the first chain reaction or of the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb.
Al remained a committed peace activist and supporter of progressive causes. In the 1980s he served on the executive committee of the Champaign-Urbana SANE/Nuclear Freeze organization. After becoming emeritus he was a precinct committeeman for the Champaign County Democratic Party.
He was an exceptionally inquisitive person, particularly into the varieties of human culture, past and present, and natural environments and environmental issues. He was an inveterate world traveler, and a committed secular internationalist and humanist as well as a scientist.
An indefatigable fisherman, Al loved nothing more than the nearly half century of summers he spent on the Vineyard with his family, his extended family, and colleagues and friends, families, all of whom knew him there as Uncle Al.
Al was a great teacher who for years took children on expeditions to catch fish, net crabs, spear eels and dig clams, all in pursuit of the perfect bouillabaisse. His grandchildren, all of whom imbibed the great sense of curiosity and inquiring spirit that he worked to instill in them, adored him.
He married Shirley Hier in 1943, and they led an active and loving life as world travelers, parents, grandparents, and colleagues at the University of Illinois, until her death in 1989. In 1992, Al married Alice von Neuman. Al and Alice had a loving marriage that included many trips to exotic locations around the world.
Survivors include his wife; his daughters, Beth Green of Longmeadow and Aquinnah, Jill White of Chicago and Nina Tarr of Urbana, Ill.; his brother, Lee Wattenberg of Minneapolis; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Services were held at Clark-Lindsey Village on Sunday. Interment will be on the Vineyard. A memorial service will be held at the University of Illinois during the fall semester. Memorial contributions can be made to The Trustees of Reservation at Martha's Vineyard.