Kurt Gottfried 1929–2022

1 December 2022
Kurt Gottfried

Kurt Gottfried, professor emeritus at Cornell University and co-founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), passed away on 25 August 2022 at the age of 93. Throughout his career, he encouraged fellow scientists to hold their leaders to account on topics ranging from nuclear arms control to human rights and scientific integrity. 

Gottfried was born in Vienna, Austria in 1929, fleeing the country with his family when he was nine years old after their home was raided on Kristallnacht, and eventually immigrating to Montreal, Canada. He graduated from McGill University, earned a PhD in theoretical physics from MIT in 1955 and was a junior fellow at Harvard. In 1964 he became a physics professor at Cornell and remained affiliated with the university until his death. He also served on the senior staff of CERN, as a chair of the division of particles and fields of the American Physical Society, and as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Well known for his work in high-energy theo­retical physics and the foundations of quantum mechanics, Gottfried worked with David Jackson in the 1960s on the production and decay of unstable resonances in hadronic collisions using the density-matrix approach. He proposed the Gottfried sum rule for deep inelastic scattering and is also known for his work in the 1970s on charmonium. Along with Tung-Mow Yan, he authored the classic work Quantum Mechanics: Fundamentals, originally published in 1966.

In 1969, deeply concerned about what he saw as the growing threat to civilisation from the unchecked exploitation of scientific knowledge for military purposes, Gottfried co-founded UCS with his friend and future Nobel laureate Henry Kendall. His many years of leadership and guidance helped expand the scope of the organisation’s work from research on nuclear power and weaponry, to climate change, agriculture, transportation and renewable energy. Even in retirement, Gottfried continued to advise UCS scientists on policy and strategy, and to inspire the organisation with his passionate sense of urgency about its work.

In the 1980s, working with Hans Bethe and Richard Garwin, Gottfried drew attention and acclaim to UCS by demonstrating the infeasibility of the “Star Wars” missile defence programme. He authored numerous scholarly articles on missile defence, space weapons, nuclear weapons and cooperative security, and reached an even wider audience with his articles and op-eds on these topics. He also authored or co-authored three books – The Fallacy of Star Wars (1984), Crisis Stability and Nuclear War (1988) and Reforging European Security: From Confrontation to Cooperation (1990) – and contributed chapters to several others.

Throughout his life, Gottfried also used his standing to advocate for the free practice of science. In addition to his work with UCS, he was deeply engaged in campaigns in support of scientists in the former Soviet Union and South America who were imprisoned for expressing views in conflict with the dogmas of authoritarian rulers. In 2016, citing his long and distinguished career as a “civic scientist”, the American Association for the Advancement of Science awarded Gottfried its Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award.

As current UCS board chair Anne Kapuscinski noted, Kurt was the epitome of a concerned scientist and an inspiration to all of us. We will miss his passion, kindness, dedication and integrity, and we will strive to honour his lifelong dedication to building a safer world.

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