Science & Research

After death, physics prof. remembered for mentorship, imagination and contributions to Nobel-winning work

Gerald Guralnik contributed research to landmark Higgs boson discovery

By and
Science & Research Editor and Senior Staff Writer

A brilliant physics mind, witty coffee date and caring mentor, Gerald Guralnik is remembered as a father figure both inside and outside the classroom.

Guralnik, a professor of physics who coauthored one of the three papers that laid the groundwork for the discovery of the Higgs boson, passed away from a heart attack Saturday at age 77. After collapsing on stage following a lecture at the Department of Physics’ “Degree Day,” he was transported to Miriam Hospital. Despite doctors’ efforts, Guralnik died later that night.

Guralnik’s death was shocking and devastating, said Cengiz Pehlevan ScM’06 PhD’11, a graduate student of Guralnik’s. But Pehlevan said he took comfort in the fact that Guralnik died doing what he loved — explaining science.

“There is no good death, but that was, I think, a noble death,” he added.

“If there’s any solace in this,” wrote Visiting Scientist Daniel Ferrante ScM’01 PhD’09 in a letter to his colleagues, “it’s the fact that it all happened pretty much under Gerry’s terms: lecturing his life’s work, among his students, laughing and joking, doing what he loved.”

 

Nobel-winning work

Guralnik’s work in physics led to some of the most complicated experiments in history — those that resulted in the discovery of the Higgs boson, a particle that explains how other particles acquire mass.

With all the other authors of the three key papers, Guralnik won the 2010 J.J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics for his work on the Higgs mechanism.

While the authors of the other two of the papers were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics last fall, Guralnik and his co-authors were not recognized due to the prize’s cap of three winners.

Guralnik told The Herald at the time that he was “a little hurt” not to be awarded the Nobel Prize, but was happy the work they all had done was recognized.

Guralnik was “very graceful” in giving credit to the people awarded the Nobel, said Professor of Physics J. Michael Kosterlitz.

Despite the acclaim the work eventually received, when Guralnik and his collaborators first began the research that led to the discovery of the Higgs mechanism, prominent physicists of the day told them they were wasting their time, said Carl Hagen, a professor of physics at the University of Rochester, who, along with Tom Kibble, professor emeritus of physics at Imperial College London, collaborated with Guralnik on one of the papers that led to the discovery.

Guralnik had “the strength and conviction and curiosity of mind” to move forward despite criticism from the most prominent researchers of the time, Hagen added.

“He was always very imaginative, took very individualistic directions,” said Roman Jackiw, a professor emeritus of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who met Guralnik when Jackiw was a postdoctoral fellow.

The contributions Guralnik has made to the field of physics are “so large that the knowledge he gave us will stay for thousands of years,” said Professor of Physics Antal Jevicki.

 

‘A passion for Brown’

Guralnik was “a giant as a scientist, but a very kind and generous man in the department,” said James Valles, professor of physics and chair of the department. His work “was a point of light from our department that shone brightly.”

Starting his time at the University in 1967 as an assistant professor of physics, Guralnik remained at Brown for the next 47 years, wrote President Christina Paxson in a campus-wide email Sunday.

He was a “magnet” that attracted faculty to the physics department, said Professor of Computer Science John Savage, adding that many people came to Brown just to work with Guralnik.

With a strong interest in computational physics, specifically in a model of particle physics called quantum chromodynamics, Guralnik also influenced the use of computing at the University, said James Anderson, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences.

QCD requires huge amounts of computing power, Anderson said. For that reason, “at one time back in the ’80s, (Guralnik) was one of the leading computer consumers in the U.S.,” he added.

Because of his interest in QCD, Guralnik was vital in instituting high-performance computers across departments. He was one of the first people to run a super-computer at the University, said Bruno Harris, professor of mathematics and long-time friend of Guralnik’s.

Many of Guralnik’s colleagues said his openness and willingness to work with anyone in any field proved how invested he was in the University. “He had a passion for Brown,” Savage said.

Guralnik was known for his sense of humor and sharp wit, Harris said. He even welcomed his colleagues to sit in on his classes, something Harris himself took advantage of.

 

A mentor for many

Guralnik’s devotion to his students did not just manifest itself inside the classroom. He was the type of professor who would bump into his students in a coffee shop and sit down with them to help them with the problems for his class, Valles said.

Pehlevan said Guralnik “never missed a lunch” with his graduate students to discuss physics. Even since graduating, Pehlevan said he still stopped by Guralnik’s home when in the area, calling it a destination for all students close with him.

Guralnik had a genuine interest in his students and their success, Pehlevan said, citing one summer that Guralnik used money from his own salary to fund students in his lab.

“He’d go way beyond the call of duty for his students. He was very protective of them,” Kosterlitz said.

Up until the time of his death, Guralnik worked to make sure his graduate students were all able to find positions, Savage echoed.

Dina Obeid, a visiting scientist in the physics department, said Guralnik’s devotion to his students was a great rarity in the academic profession. “In academia you start to have a lot of managers, but very few mentors,” she said. “Gerry was one of the very few scientists who was a mentor to students.”

Since his death, students of Guralnik’s from around the world have offered condolences to his family, his son Zachary Guralnik said, adding that many students have also visited Guralnik’s house in the past few days.

 

‘Computers, cars and cameras’

Beyond physics, Guralnik had one other well-known fascination: cars.

Around the department, Guralnik was known for his love of cars and his taste for higher-end automobiles. While faculty members would always look to him for automobile-purchasing advice, they could not always afford his recommendations, said Professor of Physics Chung-I Tan.

He “would drive one Porsche home and come back with another version of the same car,” Jevicki said.

Guralnik’s passion for technology extended beyond cars. He was a “renaissance man when it comes to technology,” Tan said. “Everyone would ask him for advice on the latest computers, cars and cameras.”

He was also a “phenomenal photographer,” Tan said. Guralnik had a darkroom in his basement where he developed his own photographs, he added.

Through high school Guralnik spent most of his time in the darkroom, Ferrante said, adding that at one point, he even worked as a newspaper photographer.

 

A ‘disarming smile’

Guralnik had a large heart in addition to his strong mind — he was a wonderful friend and a father figure to many, those who knew him said.

Zachary Guralnik, also a theoretical physicist, said he worked with his father up until the time of his death, adding that they were currently working on a paper that is not yet finished.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work with my own father on these things. I’ve been very fortunate in this respect, and we’ve had a lot of fun,” Zachary said. “His influence on me has been profound.”

Guralnik was also a friend to colleagues at Brown and around the world. “He was honest, straightforward, creative, thoughtful and kind,” Savage said, recalling Guralnik’s regular lunches with other professors in the Ivy Room.

“Gerry is a true friend,” wrote Professor of Physics Xinsheng Sean Ling in an email to The Herald. He had a “disarming smile” and “always (had) the best interest of the Department and the University in heart.”

Kibble said though he and Guralnik lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, their families had a strong connection. “I have happy memories of times we spent together in many different places, as indeed do our children. I shall greatly miss our warm friendship.”

 

- With additional reporting from Sarah Perelman, Andrew Jones and Jason Nadboy

 

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Guralnik was known for his sense of humor in the classroom. In fact, this phrase should refer to Guralnik’s activities and conversations outside the classroom. The Herald regrets the error.

  • Robert Delbourgo

    I met Gerry when he came to Imperial College as a postdoc during the mid sixties and I got to know him fairly well that year. He had a great sense of humour and a warm personality. We shared many meals together.
    We met again when my wife and I visited Brown University during the early nineties. He was the perfect host and we had a great time reliving old memories. I shall miss his sharp wit and selfless friendship. My condolences to his family. Bob Delbourgo

  • William Franklin

    I met Gerry more than forty years ago when he was spending a sabbatical year at Imperial College, London where I was pursuing my Ph.D. under Abdus Salam. We had many interesting and (to me) helpful discussions where he showed his wonderful combination of mathematical rigour and profound physical insight. Gerry was also a gourmand and we spent many happy hours at the table, discussing food, wine and physics.

    Gerry will be deeply missed. My sincere condolences to his family.

    • vince

      Which area of study do you have your PhD?

  • http://www.sarvgyan.com Roger Taylor

    It’s really a sad news. He was a great personality but we’ve to face this shock.
    I have listened about him from one of my friend who was studying in Imperial College.

    http://www.sarvgyan.com