Sidney Drell, Stanford theoretical physicist and national security expert, dies at 90

Drell known as former deputy director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, groundbreaking researcher

Almost exactly four years ago on Wednesday, Sidney Drell, emeritus professor of theoretical physics at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, received what he called a "surprise Christmas present."

It was the announcement that he would be presented with the National Medal of Science for his "contributions to quantum field theory and quantum chromodynamics, application of science to inform national policies in security and intelligence, and distinguished contributions as an advisor to the United States Government."

A giant in the worlds of both academia and policy, Drell died Wednesday, Dec. 21, at his home in Palo Alto. He was 90 years old.

"An accomplished physicist, his contributions to improve national and international security made our world a better place," said Tom Gilligan, director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford in a statement. "We are especially grateful for Sid's relentless dedication to eliminating the threat posed by nuclear weapons and know that his important work will continue to frame the issue."

Dedicated to arms control

Drell's commitment to arms controls spanned more than 50 years. In a 1979 interview with the Stanford Daily, Drell said he became involved in the issue in 1960, "when it was realized that scientists in general and physicists in particular played a significant role in World War II. People felt the need that the scientific community be part of the national security of the country. I was persuaded by this argument. The most pressing problem of this generation is to control nuclear weapons to prevent nuclear war, and I can't emphasize that enough."

As a staunch opponent of nuclear proliferation, he served as both a chair and member of numerous panels advising Congress, the intelligence community and the military. He was an original member of JASON, a group of academic scientists created to advise the government on national security and defense issues. From 1992 to 2001 he was a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He was also the co-founder of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford and, in 2006, he and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz began a program at the Hoover Institution dedicated to developing practical steps toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

Their work, along with that of Hoover fellow William Perry and Hoover visiting fellows Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, was profiled in a book titled, "The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb."

Drell also reached across international borders, becoming a personal friend in the 1970s to Russian nuclear physicist Andreĭ Sakharov, who was later arrested and exiled for seven years for advocating for civil liberties and reforms. Drell arranged petitions, planned conferences and disseminated information about Sakharov's work and exile, according to the Hoover Institution.

"Sid Drell was a great scientist and a great American," said Stanford Provost John Etchemendy. "He was a mentor and friend to many of us in the Stanford community and we will miss equally his wisdom and his smile, and the warmth he added to the Stanford family."

An iconic physicist

Sidney David Drell was born Sept. 13, 1926, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He graduated from Princeton University in 1946 with a bachelors of arts, eventually obtaining a masters of arts and doctorate in physics from University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

He began work at Stanford in 1950 as an instructor in physics, left to work as both a researcher and assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then returned to Stanford in 1956 as a professor of physics. Drell was an essential member of SLAC, serving as deputy director of the lab from 1969 until his retirement from the lab in 1998.

"Drell's theoretical work was very critical in setting SLAC on the course that it took," said Burton Richter, a professor emeritus of particle physics and astrophysics at SLAC who directed the lab from 1984-1999 and received the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics.

Drell researched quantum electrodynamics and quantum chromodynamics. The former describes interactions between light and matter; the latter is the investigation of quarks and gluons, fundamental subatomic particles. While at SLAC, he and research associate Tung-Mow Yan formulated the Drell-Yan Process, which a SLAC news feature described as an explanation of "what happens when a quark in one particle and an antiquark in a second particle annihilate into an electron and a positron." This process has become an invaluable tool in particle physics, just one example of Drell's iconic work.

"As head of the SLAC theory group, Drell brought to us a whole host of a younger generation of theoretical physicists who began creating the present picture we have of the structure of matter," Richter said. "Sid played a very important role in developing the justification for experiments and turning the results into what became the foundation of the Standard Model of particle physics."

For his research and lifetime of service to his country, Drell received many prestigious awards, including the National Medal of Science (2011); the Enrico Fermi Award, the nation's oldest award in science and technology; a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation; the Heinz Award for contributions in public policy; the Rumford Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal. Drell was one of 10 scientists honored as "founders of national reconnaissance as a space discipline" by the US National Reconnaissance Office. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society and was president of the American Physical Society in 1986.

Passionate in work and in life

Although it may seem like a person who achieved all of this would have time for little else, Drell was also an accomplished violinist who played chamber music throughout his life. He particularly enjoyed the St. Lawrence String Quartet. For his 90th birthday, Chris Costanza, the quartet's cellist, came to Drell's home and played two Bach unaccompanied cello suites, an experience which was very dear to Drell.

Drell is survived by his wife, Harriet, of Palo Alto, and his children, Daniel of Falls Creek, Virginia; Persis of Stanford; and Joanna of Richmond, Virginia. Persis Drell, also a physicist at Stanford and former director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, will be the university's next provost.

The family has no requests for donations; memorial plans will be forthcoming.

The Palo Alto Weekly contributed to this report.


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7 people like this
Posted by David Struthers
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 22, 2016 at 12:52 pm

I was a mathematics teacher at Gunn High School when Persis and Daniel were students there. At that time, near the end of the school year, Gunn held an Open House for parents and community. One of the activities was a Math Contest for parents. It involved a series of multiple choice questions and some sort of prize was given to a "winner".
I made up a question which involved a figure which was to be put through as series of transformations (flips, slides, rotations) and the problem was to figure out the result of all of these transformations. It turned out that I made a mistake and none of the choices was correct. This was quietly and gently pointed out to me by Professor Drell. I long recalled the twinkle in his eye and his great smile. What a great person. I often saw him at concerts given at Stanford. I too, am a fan of the St. Lawrence Quartet.

7 people like this
Posted by Susan Gere
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 22, 2016 at 1:26 pm

great story, Mr Struthers. I knew Prof. Drell as the father of my classmate at Stanford Elementary. I learned over the years that the 'greatest' were often very personable. One day I was substituting on my brother's campus NY_Times paper route, and had a tire failure. After 5, the buildings were going to start locking up, so that was a crisis. I knocked on the door of their splendid row house, with the round turrets at the corners, and he answered the door. I explained I was a friend of Persis, and could I borrow a bicycle Right Now, Very Important. While he looked puzzled/bemused by this request, he did walk round to the shed in back and handed over a sturdy three-speed, just asking me to return it there. By their small deeds ye shall know them!

5 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 22, 2016 at 9:05 pm

This is a great article. Thank you for sharing, David and Susan.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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