Harry (Zvi) Lipkin

by Prof. Haim Harari

People behind the science

Date: February 4, 2016
Weizmann Magazine Vol. 9

Prof. Harry (Zvi) Lipkin passed away on September 15, 2015. Lipkin has been one of the leading theoretical physicists of Israel, one of the founders of the Physics Department of the Weizmann Institute and a major contributor to an amazingly broad spectrum of topics.

Unlike most theoretical physicists, his originality and creativity continued for many decades, and he has been a prolific author of excellent new ideas at an age when others retire and most have forgotten their last important contribution.

Lipkin was born in New York City in 1921, grew up in Rochester, New York, graduated in engineering, contributed to the WWII anti U-boat radar project at MIT, received an experimental physics Ph.D. from Princeton, immigrated to Israel with his wife Malka to a pioneering life in a Kibbutz on the Lebanese border, was sent to France to study Nuclear Reactors, joined an R&D unit of the Israeli military, co-founded the newly created department of nuclear physics at the Weizmann Institute, and we have only reached 1955 in this history. For the remaining 60 years of his life he worked on an unusually broad spectrum of topics in physics, including nuclear physics, condensed matter physics, basic problems in quantum mechanics and he made very major contributions to particle physics. He received several major prizes, including the Wigner Medal, the E.M.E.T. Prize and the Rothschild Prize, spent long periods of research in the USA, especially at Argonne National Lab, and has been, for decades, a frequent invited speaker in just about every major physics department and conference.

But his original contributions to physics have been only one aspect of his incredible career. He always felt that one should never take oneself too seriously, and founded with virologist Alexander Kohn the “Journal of Irreproducible Results”, in which no allegedly serious scientific topic remained immune against parodies, jokes and ridiculing remarks. Lipkin was also passionate about the teaching of reading in elementary schools, a subject in which he held strong views, often arguing his case in widely distributed written pieces. He has done the same regarding his views on events in the Middle East, and he was essentially a prolific blogger, decades before the word Blog was coined. In the 1980’s Lipkin corresponded with the exiled dissident Andrei Sakharov, in the Soviet Union, and was instrumental in keeping Sakharov’s fate in the focus of public opinion.

His research, as well as his attitude to anything else, was enriched by a unique ability to provide simple descriptions and explanations, often using analogies to better understood topics. His physics work was always standing on several solid legs: Maximal contact with experiments; a rare intuition for complex quantum mechanical paradoxes and dilemmas, a feature that most physicists understand but have no intuition for; and an ability to see through myriad details, straight into the heart of the matter.

An excellent scientist, great mind, and a wonderful tour guide through many labyrinths. I am proud to have been his student, friend and collaborator.