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Marshall N. Rosenbluth ’46, a leading physicist in the field of nuclear fusion and plasmas who contributed to the development of the hydrogen bomb, died on Sunday from pancreatic cancer. He was 76.
Rosenbluth was the recipient of numerous scientific honors and awards, one of which was the 1997 National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor in science, for his work in the study of plasmas.
Born in Albany, Rosenbluth received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard as a teenager, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He went on to receive his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1949. Soon after, he discovered the Rosenbluth formula for proton electron scattering, which is today a central theory of college-level physics. For this development, he later won the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award.
In 1950, Edward Teller, considered the father of the hydrogen bomb, recruited Rosenbluth to work in Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Rosenbluth maintained this position until 1956. The research he conducted at Los Alamos led to the development of the H-bomb. Rosenbluth later headed the effort to find peaceful uses for nuclear fusion as an unlimited source of energy.
After working with Teller, Rosenbluth was a senior research advisor at the General Atomics Laboratory until 1967. He worked concurrently as a professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).
“He was the acknowledged world leader in the field of plasma physics,” said Professor of Physics at UCSD Marvin L. Goldberger, who was a colleague of Rosenbluth’s. “For this reason, he was known as the ‘Pope of Plasma Physics.’”
Rosenbluth left UCSD in 1967. He worked as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and served as a visiting lecturer at Princeton University from 1967 until 1980.
That year, Rosenbluth became professor and director at the Institute for Fusion Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
In 1987, Rosenbluth returned to UCSD where he worked as a professor until 1993. He remained at the university as a professor emeritus and research physicist until his death.
Throughout his career, Rosenbluth held several memberships in the scientific community. He was a member of the National Academy of Science, the American Physical Society Council and the National Research Council.
Despite the accolades, Rosenbluth was modest about his accomplishments. His self-authored faculty profile on the UCSD website says simply, “I am a theoretical plasma physicist with a particular interest in the physics of magnetic confinement fusion devices.”
“When he was a professor at the University of Texas, he took the bus to work every day, and it picked him up in front of the house,” said his stepson Jonathan Skolnik. “One day I took the bus from there and the bus driver told me what a great guy Rosenbluth was.”
Rosenbluth is survived by his wife, Sara, and four children from a previous marriage, Alan Edward, Robin Ann, Mary Louise and Jean Pamela.
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