In Memoriam: David Alburger

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Posted: January 11, 2013

David Alburger

By John Millener, Physics Department, with contributions from BNLers Peter Bond, Chellis Chasman, and Keith Jones

David Alburger, a retired senior physicist who held a guest appointment in the Physics Department, died on June 13, 2012. He was 91. Alburger, who graduated from Swarthmore College in 1942 and worked for Naval Research during the Second World War, received his Ph.D. in physics from Yale University and joined Brookhaven as an associate scientist on July 1, 1948. In November 1948 he was named an associate physicist, in 1954, physicist, and in 1961, senior physicist. He was granted tenure in 1957.

Alburgerís research activities at BNL spanned more than six decades, resulting in well over 200 publications, mostly in Physical Review. Thomas Ludlam, Physics Department Chair, said, ďDave was a consummate scientist, and one of the longest-serving members of the Physics Department. His hands-on, can-do approach to experimental physics was universally admired.Ē

The central theme of Alburgerís work involved studies of nuclear beta decay, the process by which a neutron in an unstable nucleus turns into proton (or vice versa) with the emission of an electron and an antineutrino (or positron and neutrino). These studies often required the detection of electrons ó for which he built a number of spectrometers ó and the gamma rays from the decays of excited levels in the final nucleus. In this way, many properties of the decaying nucleus (mass, half life, spin, parity) and final nucleus could be determined. Over the years, as accelerators and detectors improved, there were many firsts, meaning the studies of new isotopes, along with a steady accumulation of data on nuclear structure that theorists could attempt to explain.

Alburgerís experimental prowess attracted strong long-term collaborators with complementary skills, notably Denys Wilkinson, Oxford University and later University of Sussex, England, and Ernie Warburton of BNL, who both also excelled in theory. Wilkinson (already a Fellow of the Royal Society) came to BNL for the summer in 1958 (and in summer for the next 20 years). This resulted in an important paper on the beta decay of Berillium-11. All three were authors on four papers, out of at least 11 that bore Alburgerís name, published in 1963 (1971 and 1972 would be similarly productive years). Also involved in a number of the 1963 papers was Andre Gallmann from Strasbourg, an-other long-term collaborator, as the experimenters used small Van de Graaff accelerators at both BNL and Strasbourg.

Alburger was Group Leader for work on the 3.5 MeV Van de Graaff for 25 years from 1953. He was the primary author of a two-page proposal for a new Tandem Van de Graaff facility consisting of two MP tandems, approved in 1962 and completed in 1970. As far as beta-decay studies were concerned, the extra energy and availability of heavy-ion beams from this facility meant that a much wider range of isotopes could be produced and studied. In fact, more experiments were often needed to track down the origin of the wide range of activities produced by heavy-ion beams. Productivity soared.

Alburger later made useful contributions to the new heavy-ion program at the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS) (injected by the tandems), produced several compilations for nuclear data sheets at the National Nuclear Data Center at BNL, and worked in the medium-energy groupís hypernuclear program at the AGS. He also continued to work with BNL nuclear chemists, as he had periodically throughout his career, on the measure-ments of long half-lives.

At the time of his death, Alburger was deeply involved in a benchtop experiment to detect the rare process in which a nuclear level decays by the emission of two gamma rays that sum to the transition energy rather than by a single gamma ray. Thousands of examples of this rare decay, which occurs about three times per million decays, have been seen since data-taking started in November 2010.

Alburgerís scientific legacy is a large body of precise experimental measurements, many of which continue to be important, often for reasons not thought of at the time that the measurements were made.

A longtime resident of Brookhaven Hamlet, Alburger was active in local activities and affairs. He was an avid runner ó at 82, he joined the 278 runners in the 2003 Earth Day 4-mile run at Brookhaven, clocking in at 51:38. Mary Mickle Alburger, Alburgerís wife of over 60 years, died in 2008. He is survived by two sons, David Reid and Andrew, and two daughters, Mary Jo and Eve.

More detailed notes by John Millener

Alburger'sís research activities at BNL spanned more than six decades. He was a very talented and meticulous experimental nuclear physicist who loved designing experiments, and he was never happier than when he could build equipment with his own hands. The central theme of his work involved studies of nuclear beta decay, the process by which a neutron in an unstable nucleus turns into proton (or vice versa) with the emission of an electron and an antineutrino (or positron and neutrino) ó the capture of an atomic electron with emission of a neutrino can compete with the latter process. These studies often required the detection of electrons (for which Alburger built a number of spectrometers) and the gamma rays from the decays of excited levels in the final nucleus. In this way, many properties of the decaying nucleus (mass, half life, spin, parity) and final nucleus could be determined. Over the years, as accelerators and detectors improved, there were many firsts, meaning the studies of new isotopes, along with a steady accumulation of data on nuclear structure that theorists could attempt to explain.

In 1953, after a year in Stockholm, Alburger became Group Leader for use of the 3.5 MeV Research Van de Graaff (a BNL rebuilt version of an accelerator purchased in 1948) and remained in that position for 25 years.

Alburger's experimental expertise attracted strong long-term collaborators with complementary skills, notably Denys Wilkinson and Ernie Warburton, both fine experimentalists with excellent theoretical skills. Wilkinson came to BNL from Oxford, UK, for the summer in 1958 ó and came every summer for the next 20 years or so. This resulted in an important paper on the beta decay of 11Be (which turned out to have an unexpected structure). All three authors were on four papers, out of at least 11 that bore Alburger's name, published in 1963. 1971 and 1972 would be similarly productive years. Important work was done with an Alburger spectrometer that measured the electron-positron pairs that accompany gamma rays of more than a certain energy. Theoretical work by Warburton allowed this pair-spectrometer to be used as what was dubbed the "multipole meter" for characterizing electromagnetic transitions. Also involved in a number of the 1963 papers was Andre Gallmann from Strasbourg (another long-term collaborator) as the experimenters used small Van de Graaff accelerators at both BNL and Strasbourg.

Also at about this time, Alburger was the primary author of a two-page proposal for a new Tandem Van de Graaff facility consisting of two MP tandems. Approval was granted in 1962 and the facility was completed in 1970. As far as beta-decay studies were concerned, the extra energy and availability of heavy-ion beams meant that a much wider range of isotopes could be produced and studied. In fact, more experiments were often needed to track down the origin of the wide range of activities produced by heavy-ion beams. Many experiments used an Alburger "rabbit" system in which a light plastic rabbit holding the target could be transferred backwards and forward along a pipe by puffs of helium gas between the beam and a low-background counting area (one of a number of systems invented for related purposes). The years that followed, until the funding for low-energy nuclear physics at the Tandems ceased in 1984, were extremely productive (see 1971 and 1972 above).

Alburger then made useful contributions to the new heavy-ion program at the AGS (injected by the tandems), produced several compilations for Nuclear Data Sheets at the NNDC, and eventually helped out with the medium-energy group's hypernuclear program at the AGS, producing, amongst other things, a large diamond (dense carbon) target for one experiment (and another one for use at KEK in Japan). He also continued to work with BNL nuclear chemists, as he had periodically throughout his career, on the measurements of long half-lives and other problems.

At the time of his death, Alburger was deeply involved in a benchtop experiment using two sodium-iodide gamma-ray detectors and a radioactive 137Cs source. The objective, successfully achieved, is to detect the rare process in which a nuclear level decays by the emission of two gamma rays that sum to the transition energy rather than by a single gamma ray. This experiment was begun with Robert Chrien and Richard Sutter and was continued by Sutter and Alburger with theoretical support from John Millener. Thousands of examples of the rare decay, which occurs about three times per million decays, have been seen since data taking started in November 2010. The energy sharing between the gamma rays provides more details of the process connected to nuclear structure.

Alburger's scientific legacy is a large body of precise experimental measurements, many of which continue to be important, often for reasons not thought of at the time that the measurements were made.

A longtime resident of Brookhaven Hamlet, Alburger was active in local activities and affairs, serving as President of the South Country Central School Board in the late 1960s. He played viola with the Bay Area Symphony of the Bay Area Friends of Fine Arts (BAFFA) for over forty years, retiring from the Orchestra shortly before his passing. He was an avid runner, often going years without missing a day - and every year on his birthday he would run his age in miles finally stopping at 8.8 miles on his eighty-eighth birthday. At 82, he joined the 278 runners in the 2003 Earth Day 4-mile run at Brookhaven, clocking in at 51:38.

Last Modified: January 11, 2013