MIT Professor Lazarus researched solar wind
Remembered by colleagues and friends
Editor’s Note: John Belcher, an MIT physics professor, was a close colleague of Alan Lazarus. Marianne Lazarus, the wife of Alan Lazarus, and his daughter, Julia, contributed to this obituary.
Alan Jay Lazarus, senior research scientist emeritus at MIT, a gentle man, respectful of all and respected by all who knew him, died peacefully in his home in Lexington, Mass. on March 13 of complications with Lewy body dementia and with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. He was 82.
Lazarus was born in San Francisco on October 24, 1931. His early education in California schools, completed with a year at Phillips Andover Academy, developed in him a love for learning, especially science. He had summer jobs at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge National Labs, while earning degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (SB 1953, in physics) and Stanford University (PhD 1958, in high-energy physics, under the direction of W. K. H. Panofsky). He did post-graduate work at the Rand Corporation.
Lazarus’ career at MIT, begun in 1959, spanned more than 50 years. He joined space research pioneers Bruno Rossi and Herbert Bridge to study space physics, focusing particularly on space plasma and the solar wind. At MIT’s Center for Space Research (now the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research), Lazarus helped develop instruments for more than 20 spacecraft missions to learn about the solar wind, including the plasma instruments on board Voyagers 1 and 2, launched in 1977, which are the first spacecraft to travel beyond the edge of our solar system. Instruments he developed continue to provide measurements of the solar wind plasma that buffets Earth, and of the distant boundary between solar plasma and the interstellar medium.
Lazarus was the principal investigator for a solar wind experiment on SOL-RAD 11. He was also a co-investigator for: a solar wind plasma experiment utilizing Faraday cup sensors on Explorers 10, 18, 33, and 35, which studied Earth’s magnetosphere; the Mariner 4, Mariner 5, and Mariner 10 missions to Venus and Mars; Pioneers 6 and 7 and Voyagers 1 and 2, which explored the outer solar system; the Imp-7, Imp-8, and Wind spacecraft focused on solar wind near Earth; the Orbiting Geophysical Observatories 1 and 3, which studied Earth’s magnetosphere; and the Giotto probe to Halley’s comet.
He was the lead or co-author on more than 200 scientific papers. Lazarus’ DSCOVR Faraday Cup is scheduled to fly in early 2015 as a real-time beacon for NOAA space weather forecasting. Because it will be sun-pointed and make fast measurements, this instrument will be a prototype for a Faraday Cup on Solar Probe, on which he was a co-investigator, and which is scheduled for launch in 2018.
In addition to his research position, Lazarus was a senior lecturer in MIT’s Department of Physics. He cared deeply about his students and worked to bring delight to their learning experiences, in the first- and second-year physics courses taken by all MIT students (8.01 and 8.02), and by working to develop innovative teaching methods. He ran a modern laboratory course for physics majors that introduced students to techniques of classical and modern physics, and served as co-director of MIT’s Integrated Studies Program.
Always ready to share his experience and love of MIT, Lazarus was a caring and devoted faculty advisor to many students over the years. In 1963 he was the first recipient of MIT’s Everett Moore Baker Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching. From 1977-1980 he was MIT’s Associate Dean of Students in Charge of Freshman Advising, where he was instrumental in the creation of the Undergraduate Academic Support Office. In 1998 he received the Department of Physics’ William W. Buechner Faculty Award for Teaching.
Lazarus was a beloved colleague to his MIT compatriots, to the many graduate students and senior thesis students he mentored, and to the wider space physics community, nationally and internationally. “I really can’t think of another person in our field who would so frequently bring a smile to people’s faces as they remembered a time he helped them out, often as a student or post-doc just getting started, and often without asking or expecting anything in return,” says Justin Kasper, Professor at the University of Michigan, formerly of the Kavli Institute. “He really would help anyone who asked.”
Lexington, Mass., was Lazarus’ home for 42 years. He was an active member of the community, serving as an elected Town Meeting member for 30 years and on various town boards and committees, from Appropriations to Hanscom Field Advisory. He was chair of the group that founded LexMedia, the town television station. He was also deeply interested in the town schools, especially in their teaching of science, and he served on the school system’s Science Advisory Council and as a judge for the high school’s science fairs.
Lazarus enjoyed swimming, sailing, and the rich atmosphere of MIT’s collegial community. He loved music, art, and culture, good food and drink, and the company of friends and family. He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Marianne; his daughter, Julia of Providence, R.I.; his sister and brother-in-law Louise and Pieter de Vries of San Rafael, Calif.; a nephew; three nieces; and their six children. He will be missed by his many friends and colleagues, who gathered in Lexington on April 12 in celebration of his life.
To commemorate Lazarus’ dedication and devotion to advising and mentoring students, and to recognize him as a champion of faculty engagement with students, the Alan J. Lazarus (1953) Excellence in Advising Award has been established to be awarded annually to an MIT faculty member who has served as an excellent advisor and mentor to freshmen, and who has had a significant impact on their personal and academic success. Those who wish to make a gift in support of this award may do so by contacting Bonny Kellermann ‘72, MIT Director of Memorial Gifts, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-253-9722.