The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 27, 2000
March 27, 2000
VOL. 29, NO. 29


Leon Madansky, Longtime Professor of Physics, Dies at 77

By Michael Purdy
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Leon Madansky, Alonzo Decker Science and Engineering Professor Emeritus and former chairman of the Physics and Astronomy Department in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, died suddenly on March 18 while vacationing in London.

Colleagues expressed gratitude for his leadership of the department in a critical time of transition, awe of his ability to keep abreast of many different fields of physics research, admiration for his willingness to lend uncredited help and, most of all, sadness at the loss of a dear friend whose advice and insight they treasured.

Leon Madansky

"I will sorely miss his presence," said Aihud Pevsner, professor of physics. "I am very sad that I will no longer be able to start my mornings by exchanging ideas with Leon."

After hearing the news, Chung Wook Kim, a Hopkins physics professor currently on leave in Korea, said, "I have felt really down all day. I know life is full of many surprises, but I did not expect to not see Leon anymore when I get back to Baltimore at the end of this year."

Madansky, who was 77, came to Hopkins in 1948 and was chair of the department, then known as the Department of Physics, from 1965 to 1968.

As atomic physics, then the mainstay of the department, started to fade in prominence, Madansky saw some of the new directions the field of physics would take, such as nuclear physics, particle physics, astronomy and astrophysics. He then worked to ensure the hiring of new faculty who could help establish the department as a leader in those fields.

"He was a man of vision who started a number of our department's programs," said Thomas Fulton, professor of physics. "He played an instrumental role in the hiring of so many of our leading staff members."

According to Fulton, Pevsner and Gordon Feldman, also a physics professor, Madansky could shape the department so well because he had a remarkable ability to keep up simultaneously with the latest results in many different and highly specialized areas of physics research.

"In an age of specialists, Leon was one of the last of the generalists. He was one of the broadest, the deepest and the most intuitive of physicists in every field, prompting many researchers, including Nobel winners, to seek out his opinion," Pevsner said.

Madansky also passed on his knowledge in the many specialties of physics, describing the latest results to his students and challenging them to think about the questions those results raised, according to Fulton.

Madansky's contributions to science included early pioneering work in particle physics with Franco Rasetti, then also a member of the Hopkins Physics Department and earlier a collaborator of Enrico Fermi, and with the late George Owen, physics professor and dean of the Homewood faculties. He also helped develop an important particle physics detector known as the spark chamber and made many other significant contributions to nuclear and particle physics.

More recently, Madansky regularly spent his summers conducting research at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and the Lawrence Berkeley Radiation Laboratory in California. He also was a leader at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC, at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The collider, scheduled to go online later this year, will help scientists better understand what happened at the time of the Big Bang, the origin of the universe.

"There was so much more he could've taken credit for," Feldman says. "He had interactions with and helped almost everyone, and he did so many things that he should've gotten credit for but didn't because he was so unassuming."

Madansky is survived by his wife, Rena, two children and five grandchildren. Funeral services were held on March 24. The Physics and Astronomy Department is planning a memorial service, which will be announced in The Gazette.