In Memoriam: Per Fridtjof Dahl

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Posted: October 20, 2011

Per DahlPer Fridtjof Dahl, a physicist, artist, and historian of modern physics died on October 1, 2011 after a two-to-three year-long struggle with lung cancer.

Per Dahl was born at Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C., on August 1, 1932. His parents were Odd Dahl, from Drammen, Norway, and Anna Augusta (Vesse), from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Dahl was born while his father was working at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. In 1936, his father saw the war coming and decided to take his family back to Bergen, Norway. He returned to Norway in 1937 to oversee science in Norway during the war.

Dahl grew up in Bergen, Norway, from the age of 4 until he was 17. He then came to the U.S. and served three years in the U.S. Army, including two years stationed on Guam in the Pacific. Taking after his father, Dahl was interested in science and physics from an early age. He studied science during his Army years, and after leaving the service he entered the University of Wisconsin, obtaining his Ph.D. in Physics in 1960. His post-doctoral work was done at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Per Dahl came to Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in 1963. He arrived at a time when superconductors were beginning to move from laboratory development to industrial production. At this time, development of accelerator magnets using NbTi and Nb3Sn began. Per became involved in the design of these magnets early in his BNL career and acquired a good understanding both of the materials and their use in magnets. He put this knowledge to good use later in his BNL career when he became the principal person writing about magnets and superconductors for technically-oriented audiences. This work also provided him with an opportunity to display his skills as an artist. His drawing that shows all the critical components of a superconducting cable is still used in talks for visitors to Brookhaven.

Per began working on the larger stage of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in 1987, where he continued work documenting the magnet program. When the SSC effort moved from the design location, Berkeley, to the laboratory location in Texas, Per expanded his work to include both the documentation of the conventional construction effort and preparation of information in support of the SSC mission (e.g., publisher of the SSC News).

Following termination of the SSC project in 1993, Per moved to the Accelerator and Fusion Research Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL). During much of that time he was on leave to the Office of High Energy Physics, where he was Program Officer for a number of university grants. He also consulted with BNL about the nascent RHIC magnet system. He retired from LBNL in 1996 but kept contact with the lab through a visiting scientist appointment and work at the Office for the History of Science and Technology at UC-Berkeley until 2005.

Saint Chrotron Click on the image to download a high-resolution version.

The illustration of "Saint Chrotron" by Per Dahl was taken from the Brookhaven Bulletin of January 14, 1976

Dahl is the author of numerous scientific papers and several books: From Nuclear Transmutation to Nuclear Fission, 1932-1939 (Institute of Physics Publishing, Co., Bristol, England and Philadelphia, PA, USA, 2002); Heavy Water and the Wartime Race for Nuclear Energy (Institute of Physics Publishing, Co., UK, Bristol England and Philadelphia, PA, USA, 1999), which was featured in the NOVA TV-production, Hitlerís Sunken Secret, DOX Production, London, 2004; Flash of the Cathode Rays: A History of J.J. Thomsonís Electron (Institute of Physics Publishing, Co., UK, Bristol, England and Philadelphia, USA, 1997); Superconductivity: Its Historical Roots and Development from Mercury to the Ceramic Oxides (American Institute of Physics, New York, 1992); Ludvig Colding and the Conservation of Energy Principle: Experimental and Philosophical Contributions, The Sources of Science N. 104 (Johnson Reprint Corp., New York and London, 1972).

Throughout his life, Dahl was able to pursue his love for physics, art and his family. While at Brookhaven, he was a president of the South Bay Art Association (1967-1968), and he was also the president of the Brookhaven National Laboratory Art Society for several years. He was a fellow of the American Physical Society.

He is survived by his devoted wife of 45 years, Eleanor, and two sons: Erik (married to Christa), of Pebble Beach, CA; and Thomas (married to Jo) and two grandchildren, Emily and Alex, of Westford, MA.

Peter Wanderer, Brookhaven National Laboratory, NY

Eleanor Dahl, Emeryville, CA

Erik J. Dahl, Pebble Beach, CA and Thomas F. Dahl, Westford, MA

Last Modified: October 20, 2011