April 1, 2012

Former President Also Leading Physicist, Professors Say

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After the death of former University president Dale Corson Saturday, members of the Cornell community reflected on Corson’s extensive contributions to multiple scientific disciplines.

Though Corson primarily worked as a physicist, Prof. Emeritus Donald Holcomb, physics, described his interests and research as being “all over the map.”

“He made contributions to many fields,” Holcomb said. “He did everything.”

Corson received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California-Berkeley in 1938. As a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley, he aided in the production of astatine –– the 85th element of the periodic table –– and in the discovery of its chemical and physical properties.

“That element filled a gap in the periodic table,” Prof. Emeritus Roald Hoffmann, chemistry, said. “It was an important discovery.”

In the early 1940s, Corson worked in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Radiation Laboratory, collaborating with the British Royal Air Force to install airborne radar technology in its fighter aircrafts.

Later, during World War II, Corson also worked on nuclear research in Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M. There, Corson played a pivotal role in developing the Sandia National Laboratories, which use scientific technologies to address national security issues.

“He had skills that were useful for some major projects, such as the Manhattan Project,” said Prof. Clifford Pollock, electrical and computer engineering.

In 1946, Corson came to Cornell as an assistant professor of physics. Prof. Emeritus David Cassel, physics, said that in this capacity –– and later as chair of the department –– Corson drew upon his knowledge of nuclear research to further the University’s contributions in the field.

“In the post-war era at Cornell, [Corson] was involved … in the laboratory of nuclear studies,” Cassel said. According to Cassel, that lab was later developed into the Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-Based Sciences and Education, which still supports researchers interested in particle physics and accelerators.

Corson was also instrumental in the creation of Cornell’s Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory in 1967 –– an achievement Prof. Emeritus Maury Tigner, physics, described as “pivotal.”

“Synchrotron radiation is a very important tool for all kinds of sciences, from basic biology to medicine to physics to engineering,” Tigner said.

Holcomb said that the synchrotron had a positive and lasting impact on the standing of Cornell’s physics department, distinguishing it from those of other universities.

“As the architect of synchrotron, he characterized … Cornell physics,” Holcomb said.

Corson also played a part in developing the University’s astronomy department, according to Prof. Yervant Terzian, astronomy.

Terzian also praised Corson’s role in the development of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, a site the University has operated since its construction in 1963.

“[He wanted to] make it a strong observatory … and he was very successful,” Terzian said.

Prof. Donald Farley Ph.D. ’60, electrical and computer engineering, also spoke positively of Corson’s fundraising efforts for the observatory.

“[It] wound up being a 10 million dollar observatory,” Farley said. “Corson played a major role in supporting … [the] efforts in getting it off the ground.”

In 1959, Corson was named dean of the College of Engineering, a position for which Hoffmann said Corson was well-suited.

“He also understood engineering very well. He created a climate of interaction through physics, engineering and chemistry,” Hoffmann said.

Cassel said that Corson’s interest in science did not wane when he pursued administrative positions at the University.

“While Dale was president, one time he said the engineers who ran [Cornell’s] radio station wanted to make a new antenna tower,” Cassel said. “[Corson and the engineers] had a discussion of the antenna and its technical merits, and he was delighted that he was able to use his physics knowledge and understanding as president.”

Prof. Emeritus Muawia Barazangi, earth and atmospheric sciences, said Corson’s advocacy may have guaranteed the survival and continued success of Cornell’s geology program over the years.

“[Corson] supported the department of geological sciences, which was in danger of going away when he was president,” Barazangi said. “He can take credit in saving geology at Cornell and taking the department from the brinks of oblivion to one of the best in the country today.”

After stepping down from his role as University president in 1977, Corson spent most of the next two decades serving as the chair of various national study groups, comprised of experts from around the U.S., focusing on issues in science and international relations.

Prof. Emeritus Fred McLafferty, chemistry, said that he and Corson served together on a committee that aimed to improve the physics departments of 19 universities in China.

“My impression serving on the committee was that he got academic research going again in China and strengthened ties between our country and places around the world,” McLafferty said. “He was very effective.”

In 1980, Corson helped build a sundial on the engineering quad that can tell time within a 30-second margin of error, calling it his “legacy to Cornell” in a 2006 University press release.

In 1981, Corson was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C., which Cornell officials at the time told The Sun was “one of the highest professional distinctions that can be conferred on an engineer.”

Faculty members agreed that Corson’s scientific achievements extended beyond the scope of the University.

“I think Dale was a really exceptional leader within the American scientific community,” Prof. Emeritus Kurt Gottfried, physics said. “He was a major player … and, of course, a great president of Cornell, but his importance went far beyond Cornell.”

Nicholas St. Fleur and Margaret Yoder contributed reporting to this story.

Original Author: Kerry Close