Thursday, February 21, 2008

Alvin Weinberg, the later years

Alvin Weinberg stuck me as a slightly tragic figure in later life. He was honored, and even revered in Oak Ridge, and among nuclear scientists.  But he never received the recognition that he should have for his many services to his country.  Weinberg’s first wife Marge died three years before his firing as director of ORNL, and Weinberg later wrote about the effects of her death on his life. I knew Marge Weinberg in my childhood, and recall her as a quiet but warm woman. I liked her. Her death was a serious bow to Alvin. He says of her death, that the shock of his firing was made worse by her death three years before. He also remarks, in connection to the situation that his personal life lacked structure. Even when Weinberg was in Washington over a year later, he acknowledges being deeply depressed, and contemplating suicide.  Again he mentioned Marge's death.  These are words of a man who suddenly encounters a double grief. Not only did he loose the job around which he had built his life for many years, but also suddenly given free time, he discovered what a deep void the death of his wife had created in his life.  That void was still there, even in a White House office.   Weinberg moved to fill that void by remarrying, in September 2004, while he was still working in Washington.  His new wife was an Oak Ridge widow, Gene Kellerman DePersio, who was the mother of one of my high school classmates. Shortly after his second marriage, Weinberg left Washington and returned to Oak Ridge.

There was another problem too, that must have pained Weinberg greatly. I cannot speak of that now, but during the early 1970’s Weinberg’s cup ran over with sorrows. In away I don’t think he ever overcame the tragedies of those days. He did have the satisfaction of seeing Milton Shaw driven out of Washington by Dixie Lee Ray, but Weinberg was not a vindictive man, and I doubt that Shaw’s humiliation gave him satisfaction.

Weinberg went to Washington for a year, and he tried to warn the Nation about global warming while he was there. For this service to his country, and indeed the world, he ought to have received recognition, yet he got none.

Weinberg continued to work on the big picture until his retirement for ORAU in 1984. He wrote about the future in ways that have proven highly prophetic. He was concerned about the future of energy, and the future of material resources. What he had to say withstands the test of time, and reflects a great deal more intelligence and wisdom, than much of what we hear today. Weinberg was far more open than his critics give him credit for being. Indeed he encouraged research into solar power during his stay in washing, although later he expressed a lack of confidence in the idea.

During my visits to Oak Ridge I saw Weinberg occasionally from a distance. At most we said hello.  My impression of him was of a sad and lonely man. He had remarried, but I am not sure about the second union, His second wife died before he did. My friend David Weinberg also died before his father, and than must have pained Alvin as well.

Weinberg’s obituaries focused on his life before his firing from ORNL, and indeed the things that he did after 1973 did not receive the sort of recognition that his earlier accomplishments did. But the things he did after 1973 mattered. They mattered a lot.  Weinberg deserved more.

1 comment:

DaveMart said...

Hi Charles,
I don't know if I can persuade you to chime in again to the thread on TOD discussing nuclear as against renewables with Nick - he is a reasonable interlocutor, unlike some of the eco-loons on there, and came up with a good question to which I had no fully satisfactory answer:
Would they build any reactors if they did not have their liabilities limited, and does this not mean that renewables are in fact cheaper?
I floundered around arguing that this was a special case due to unjustified fears of nuclear energy and the tendency in America to sue at the drop of a hat, but did not come up with anything I was too hap;y with - it's a valid question, so perhaps you can come up with something a bit more persuasive than I, as much as anything or if the subject comes up again.
Here is the link:
Warm regards,


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