University of Rochester

Rochester Review
May–June 2014
Vol. 76, No. 5

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TRIBUTE John Huizenga: A Remarkable Life
huizengaNUCLEAR CHEMIST: Huizenga made waves with his book Cold Fusion: The Scientific Fiasco of the Century. (Photo: University Libraries/Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation)

They say you should go to seminars because you can always learn something. Well, sometimes the effect can be profound, as it was in my case, when John Huizenga’s seminar at the new German heavy-ion research laboratory, GSI, in the summer of 1974 changed the direction of my career as a nuclear scientist. Fascinated by the new reaction phenomena John had described in his typically lucid and compelling fashion, it only took me a year before I had joined his team at Rochester.

At the time, the University’s Nuclear Structure Research Lab was bustling with students and researchers from various parts of the world performing experiments at the local accelerator and at the Berkeley, Los Alamos, and Argonne national labs. As an influential leader in a new field, John attracted an international cohort of young scientists. His enthusiasm and deep scientific insights, matched with caring mentorship, were the reasons why everyone in his group maxed out their initial appointment—or exceeded it by a large factor.

We learned a lot in these years about nucleus and nuclear interactions, leading to a number of seminal publications. When someone marked one of Huizenga’s electronic modules with a repair note reading “Huizenga—No Output,” everybody burst out laughing at this contradiction.

John’s contributions included the codiscovery of elements 99 (einsteinium) and 100 (fermium), kept secret for 50 years for reasons of national security, and the still popular book Nuclear Fission, which he coauthored with Bob Vandenbosch. He received numerous honors and fellowships and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1976. In the late 1980s, John achieved international attention as cochair of a Department of Energy panel investigating scientific claims that cold fusion was the route to cheap, safe, and abundant energy. The panel concluded that the research was flawed. In 1994, John detailed the controversy and the lessons learned in Cold Fusion: The Scientific Fiasco of the Century (Oxford).

John first learned about fission at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a recruit to the wartime Manhattan Project. For years, he had stories to tell about the scientists and engineers sequestered at the uranium enrichment plant Y12, where they lived isolated in hastily constructed barracks, working around the clock for an ambitious goal that would change the world.

John’s time at Oak Ridge naturally sparked a lifelong fascination with nuclear reactions involving uranium and transuranic nuclei, first as nuclear chemist at Argonne National Laboratory from 1955 to 1967, and from 1967 to 1991 at Rochester, where he would become the Tracy H. Harris Professor of Chemistry, and from 1983 to 1988, chair the department.

John, who died in January at the age of 92, managed to be a family man who appreciated the important role his wife, Dolly, played in supporting him in his professional life and running a family of six. John’s own former students and associates join his “kids” in celebrating his remarkable life, and acknowledging his influence on their lives and personal development.

—Wolf-Udo Schröder

Schröder is a professor of chemistry and physics at Rochester.