University of Rochester

J. Bruce French, Top Theoretical Physicist, Dies

February 14, 2002

J. Bruce French, Andrew Carnegie Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Rochester and one of the world's leading nuclear theorists, died Friday, Feb.1.

"Bruce made major contributions to the theory of the structure of atomic nuclei during his long career at Rochester," says Daniel Koltun, professor of physics and astronomy, and longtime colleague of French. "Among his many achievements was the development of the 'shell model' into a theory that provided a way to calculate properties of nuclei. Understanding these properties makes it possible for astronomers to understand the energy sources in the cores of stars, as well as for physicists to understand the cores of atoms."

A native of Newfoundland, Canada, French received his bachelor's degree in physics from Dalhousie University in 1942, and then served in the Royal Canadian Navy, performing acoustical studies for antisubmarine warfare. He completed his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1948, continuing as a research associate until 1950.

That same year, French joined the University of Rochester as a Jewett Research Fellow and was promoted to assistant professor of physics in 1951, to associate professor in 1956, and professor in 1960. He became the Carnegie Professor of Physics in 1965. On July 1, 1992, French became professor emeritus of physics, following a career of 42 years on the faculty at the University.

French chose to pursue his research career at the University in theoretical nuclear physics-a field to which he continued to make important contributions for over 50 years. A paper of his, published in 1952, helped establish the then-new subject of direct nuclear reactions. This quickly led to innovative work in another new subject: the shell model of nuclear structure. The combination of the two culminated in a classic review article in 1960, and several important sets of published lectures during the 1960s, which have served as textbooks for researchers. During this period he supplied the theoretical techniques for the Oak Ridge-Rochester shell model code, an early and well used tool for analysis of nuclear structure. In the 1970s and 1980s this line of work evolved into a subject of its own, Statistical Spectroscopy, which is largely a creation of French and his close associates. Their papers during the 1980s had a growing influence on new studies of fundamental symmetries, of quantum chaos, and of statistical mechanics of small systems.

French's role in physics education at the University was largely in his distinguished teaching of graduate courses, several of which he introduced to the curriculum at Rochester, and his direction of graduate research. He had more than 25 doctoral students, and guided perhaps as many postdoctoral fellows, most of whom are active in physics on three continents. He published about 100 research articles and reviews.

The most recent principal areas of French's research in theoretical nuclear physics have been: development and application of central limit theorems on groups for studying the "smoothed" behavior of complicated quantum systems; and extended random-matrix and related methods for studying quantum chaos. The earliest applications have been to nuclei, in particular to establishing bounds on time-reversal non-invariance in the nucleon-nucleon interaction. The methods developed are now in use, here and elsewhere, for studying other symmetries in nuclei and in atomic, molecular and condensed-matter systems, as well as the relationship between quantum and classical chaos.

French was named Fellow of the American Physical Society. He served on many advisory committees in the United States and India, and was awarded a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, and a large number of visiting professorships.

He died on Feb. 1, in a St. Petersburg, Fla. hospital from complications following an infection. He is survived by his daughter Carol Wasala in St. Petersburg, and two sons John in Durham, North Carolina, and Roger in Wilmington, Delaware. It is expected that he will be buried later in the year in a cemetery plot in New Brunswick, Canada where his wife Helen, who died in 1997, is buried.

Since one of his last wishes was that a memorial fund be set up in his name to support doctoral students in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester, his family has requested that contributions be sent to the the J. Bruce French Memorial Fund, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627-0171.