Sad News: Harry Lipkin is gone

I’m very sorry to report that Harry Lipkin has died. Harry was a founding editorial board member of the Annals of Improbable Research, and long before that — in 1955, he and Alex Kohn co-founded the Journal of Irreproducible Results, the forerunner of the Annals. Harry was also, by the way, one of the world’s great physicists. For most of his life he was a professor at the Weizmann Institute.

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Harry died in September, just a few days before the 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Harry and Alex had devised the basic idea of the Ig Nobel Prize many years earlier, and both of them helped me, from afar, found the ceremony back in 1991. Harry was almost-eternally going to come be part of the show — sadly he never quite made it. (Alex died in 1994.)

In 1994, when the then-publisher of the old magazine was going to consign it to oblivion (and it became clear that nothing any of us could do would stop them), I resigned as editor, and with help from Harry and Alex and the rest of the gang, started a brand new magazine — thus was born the Annals of Improbable Research.

Over a long span of years, Harry influenced (and was good friends with) a substantial part of the world’s top layer of physicists, and many, many other people. Here’s part of the appreciation that was published in both the CERN Courier and Physics Today:

Lipkin was born in New York City in 1921 and grew up in Rochester, New York. His life was very rich: he graduated in engineering; contributed to the crucial WWII anti U-boat microwave radar project at MIT; undertook an experimental-physics PhD thesis at Princeton; immigrated to Israel with his wife Malka to start a pioneering life in an agricultural kibbutz on the Lebanese border; was sent to France to study nuclear reactors; joined an early R&D unit of the Israeli army; co-founded and moved into the newly created Department of Nuclear Physics at the Weizmann Institute; became a theoretical nuclear physicist… and we have only reached 1955 in his history. For the remaining 60 years of his life, he also contributed to theoretical condensed-matter physics, particularly the Mössbauer effect; basic problems in quantum mechanics; and, especially, particle physics, with an emphasis on symmetries, quark-model analysis, applications of group theory and a wide variety of other topics. His book Lie Groups for Pedestrians introduced many generations of physicists to the subject. He received several major prizes, including the Wigner Medal, the Emet Prize and the Rothschild Prize. He spent long periods of research in the US, especially at Argonne National Lab and, for decades, was a frequently invited speaker at just about every major physics department and conference.

But his original contributions to physics research were only one aspect of his incredible career. He always felt that one should never take oneself too seriously, even as a scientist. Together with virologist Alexander Kohn, he founded the Journal of Irreproducible Results…

Harry was a thoughtful, funny, prolific writer. For a taste of his thoughts and his personality, read his essay “Why talking to physicists tells you what you can’t hear elsewhere“, which was published in the APS [American Physical Society] News, in 2009.

If you’re a bit more adventurous, take a read through his paper “Quantum Theory of Neutrino Oscillations for Pedestrians – Simple Answers to Confusing Questions“.

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