Sad news: Roy Glauber, paper airplane sweeper and physicist of light, is gone

We have just heard the sad news that Roy Glauber died. Roy was our friend, and for more than 20 years he was a sweepingly charismatic part of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony—he was “The Keeper of the Broom,” who almost every year would sweep paper airplanes from the stage during the Ig Nobel ceremony, where he was beloved for his intellect, charm, and tidyness, and for his deadpan comic timing.

Roy was also a physicist of some note. He was one of the atomic pioneers at Los Alamos, when he was still a college student, then later became a Harvard physics professor, and in 2005 was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics. You might want to read our little tribute to Roy on the announcement, in 2005, that he was being awarded a Nobel Prize “for his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence.” Roy discovered more about light—what light is, and how it behaves—than almost all the rest of humanity combined had managed to do.

(I was tickled when Roy phoned me shortly after his return home from the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm. He said, with great Glauberian joy, that all the reporters there had showed more interest in him than in any of the other new Nobel laureates. Then Roy paused. A long pause. “But all they wanted to ask about,” he said, with a probably unique blend of pride, bitterness, and amusement, “was that damn broom and the paper airplanes.”)

Roy and his broom, illuminated by human spotlights, at the 2012 ceremony.

Since then, Roy most years did double duty at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony—physically presenting Ig Nobel prizes to some of the new winners, and yes, continuing to sweep paper planes. Roy also had roles (generally non-singing) in most of the Ig Nobel operas.

Roy with soprano Maria Ferrante, in the opera that was part of the 2012 ceremony. (You can watch video of that moment.)

We will miss Roy very much. And we will continue to treasure the now-famous broom that he entrusted to us (an action Roy took with glee many years ago, so that he, himself, would not have to bother to remember to bring it the ceremony every year).

Here are a few action photos of Roy at various Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies.

Roy presenting an Ig Nobel Prize to the inventors of the wasabi-fume fire alarm, in 2011.


Roy and fellow Nobel laureate Craig Mello, at the 2007 ceremony, eating a specially-flavored ice cream created by Toscanini’s Ice Cream to honor the Ig Nobel Prize-winning chemist who invented a way to extract vanillin from cow dung.


Roy at a house party given by friends in 2005, shortly after the announcement that Roy was being awarded a Nobel Prize in physics. The tall fellow on the right is Sheldon Glashow, with whom Roy shared an office for many years, patiently awaiting the era when not just one of them would have a Nobel Prize.


Roy presenting an Ig Nobel prize, at the 2006 ceremony, to the scientists who explained why when you bend a a strand of dried spaghetti it almost always breaks into more than two pieces.


Roy at the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at the moment when fifteen women collected him as their shared prize in that year’s Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest.


Left to right in the front row: Nobel laureates Eric Maskin, Rich Roberts, Dudley Herschbach, and Roy pay tribute to the scientists who investigated whether things look different when you bend over and view them between your legs. This was at the 2016 ceremony. Roy, maybe not quite as limber at age 91 as in his youth, still insisted on contributing his measure to the honors.


Roy sweeping paper airplanes at the 1998 ceremony. This is not as minor a task as some people assume. During the ceremony, so many paper airplanes accumulate on the stage that, without the good work of diligent sweepers, it would become impossible for anyone to walk safely.

By the way, an odd burglary happened some years ago to at Roy’s house: someone stole Roy’s Nobel Prize!

UPDATE: Obituaries in Physics World, the Harvard Crimson, the Boston Globe, New York Times.

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