Aron Bernstein: In Memoriam (Alan Guth)

This makes me seem old, but I have known Aron for 58 years. I first met him in the first term of my freshman year as a student at MIT in 1964, not too long after he arrived at MIT in 1961. He was my recitation instructor in 8.01, the introductory freshman physics course. (The lecturer was the legendary Tony French.) I remember Aron as being slightly disorganized as a classroom instructor, but in any case I was a little impatient with the class material, as I was familiar with most of it from advanced placement physics in high school. But I spoke with Aron after class about more detailed topics, and we began an acquaintance that would grow into a friendship that would last a lifetime.

I don’t remember having much contact with Aron again until my junior year, when the Junior Lab course required each of us to carry out an independent experimental project, under the supervision of any faculty member that we could find. At that point I contacted Aron, and we began a project that was expanded during the next year to become a senior thesis, and then during the following year to become a master’s thesis.

Aron was an absolutely fantastic mentor. He made me feel, for the first time in my life, that I was making the transition from physics student to physicist. He integrated me into his group, inviting me to all group meetings and making it seem that it was important that I was there, even though I understood very little of what was being said. I remember one spring afternoon when we were planning to meet to talk about my project, when he took me out in one of MIT’s sailboats to discuss physics on the Charles. Aron’s love of physics was incredibly infectious. In the discussions of physics, I remember being surprised how often I heard words such as “beautiful” and “gorgeous,” which I had previously associated mainly with art and not science. In Aron’s group, physics was driven by the search for beauty.

My work with Aron did not actually involve doing an experiment, which in hindsight was possibly because Aron was afraid that if I was actually turned lose in the laboratory, I would either kill myself or destroy the equipment. So the project involved the design of a possible experiment. The final title of my thesis was The Design of High Momentum Transfer Electrodisintegration Experiments.

During my first year as a graduate student at MIT, while I was expanding my senior thesis to become a master’s thesis, Aron was on leave in Paris, working at Saclay. We communicated by mail. I finished the thesis in March (1969) and sent it to him.

Spring 1969 was an intense period of political activism on the MIT and other campuses, leading to the historic events of March 4,1969, the “Scientists Strike for Peace.” On this day much of MIT’s research and teaching activities were canceled in favor of public talks, including talks by Viki Weisskopf, Noam Chomsky, and Nobel laureate George

Wald’s still famous address under the title “A Generation in Search of a Future.” Aron would have been very active in these events if he had been on campus, so I sent him a packet of materials about the March 4 movement along with my thesis.

At the end of March I received a reply from Aron, in the form of a 6-page typed letter, with many cross-outs and hand corrections as well as a few sketched diagrams. He started the letter with a date of March 15, but at the end he comments that he was finishing the letter on March 24, after working on it on and off for more than a week. I still have this letter, and treasure it. The first two paragraphs were (leaving typos as they were written):

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March 15, 1969

Dear Alan,

I received your letter with the package of information about the March 4 events at MIT. Thank you very much– I appreciate it very much. Naturally I had to go away the year that things started to happen at MIT (not that I regret being in Paris one little bit!). It sounds like a very good beginning as you said to show people how many allies that they have and to start them thinking constructively. Don’t expect anything from the newspapers– twidleywinks is far more important then thermonuclear war as any fool can plainly see.

I started reading the material last night and it looks very interesting. It is naturally much easier to be critical of stupid policies like the ABM then for people not in power to come up with programs that are meaningful. For example Bethe’s criticisms of the ABM were very good and the protests against germ warefare and against overkill and massive armaments in general are all valid. However it is not likely that the present present administration will pay much heed about anything but the ABM and for that only to the extent that it has too because of the fact that their programn will not pass congress. On the other hand it will be quite difficult for some scientists to re-direct federal spending so that all their discussions will remain just that. Probably one good thing to do is do form a shadow cabinet science policy and put out policy statements and budgets which indicate how we would spend the federal budget if we were in a position to do so. This might have some influence but only if it were well done. I have been thinking about the same thing on a much broader basis then science but the scientific part could fit nicely in the entire effort.

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There are three things about this letter that strike me as being particularly Aronesque. First, Aron was very skeptical that efforts at activism would have any effect: “Don’t expect anything from the newspapers,” “it is not likely that the present administration would pay much heed . . . ,” and “This might have some influence but . . . .” Second, whether or not he expected anybody to listen, he was always very enthusiastic about trying. And third, whenever active plans were underway to do X, Aron also promoted thoughts of an even grander plan Y. Aron’s goals were never modest, but I think that’s exactly what it takes to keep a political movement energized.

The rest of the letter showed that Aron went through my thesis very carefully. The comments were mainly suggestions for small additions that he thought, and I agreed, would improve the thesis. They typically involved constructing some extra graphs, adding explanations of some features that were already visible in the graphs, and adding more explanation of some of the equations. The thesis involved a lot of computer work, and he reminded me that “it would be good to make sure that you will be able to understand your computer program say a year from now.” That was great advice, and I’ve tried to follow it ever since.

Fifty years after the March 4 rally, Aron teamed with Jonathan King to write an article for Science, Mobilize for Peace, memorializing the events of that day and emphasizing that today there is still a crucial need for scientists to “mobilize for peace in ways that effectively promote social responsibility in science.” They enlarged on this article for the MIT Faculty Newsletter, under the title March 4, 1969 Scientists Strike for Peace: 50 Years Later.

After finishing my master’s degree with Aron, I went on to earn a doctoral degree with Francis Low (who was also a fantastic person), and then held a string of postdoc positions at four different places before having an offer to come back to MIT on the faculty, in 1980. At that point I had a chance to renew my friendship with Aron. We would get together for lunches, maybe once every 3 to 6 months. Once he let me take him out for lunch, but mostly he preferred to just get together in his office, each bringing our own sandwiches. I would tell him a little about the physics projects that I was involved in, and he would tell me about his activities and concerns, mainly about disarmament. Most recently, I remember him telling me about efforts, in concert with other MIT faculty, to bring discussions of nuclear weapons—their physics, their destructive power, their history, their politics, etc.—into mainline MIT courses. On several occasions my wife Susan and I had the pleasure of joining Aron and his wife Susan Goldhor for dinner, sometimes at their house, and sometimes we went out.

Aron was one of the most wonderful people I have ever known. He was thoroughly dedicated to making the world a better place. Yet, despite the gravity of the nuclear threat that was constantly on his mind, Aron was never gloomy or somber. He was always light-hearted, ready to enjoy the world around him. I miss Aron tremendously.