In Memoriam: Arie van Steenbergen

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Posted: March 23, 2009

Arie van Steenbergen, a former NSLS Deputy Department Chairman who helped bring the facility to fruition, died on January 2, 2009. He was 81.

Van Steenbergen was born in 1928 in The Netherlands and attended Delft Technological University, with intentions to become an engineer. According to Brookhaven Historian Bob Crease, while at the university's library one day, van Steenbergen came across an issue of the Review of Scientific Instruments devoted to Brookhaven's Cosmotron and became so fascinated by the machine that he bought a personal copy of the issue that he kept for years to come.

After earning his Ph.D. in physics from McGill University in 1957, he joined the scientists he admired at Brookhaven as an assistant physicist at the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS). While there, he worked on multiple accelerator magnet projects including the study of a new type of accelerator called a cold magnet synchrotron, which used very cold, but not superconducting, magnets. He eventually became the head of the AGS division and played a large role in commissioning the machine after it was upgraded with a 200 MeV proton Linac in the late 1960s. In addition, van Steenbergen spent a year at Fermilab starting in 1967 to participate in the design of the Fermilab Booster.

Van Steenbergen joined Brookhaven's new high-energy accelerator, ISABELLE, in 1974, and was named senior physicist in 1976. A year later, he took on the leadership position he is best known for – Project Director of the NSLS, the world's first facility designed and built specifically for producing and exploiting synchrotron radiation.

"Arie was a pioneer in building this unique synchrotron, which not only opened the gate to groundbreaking science, but also served as a training ground for the many talented accelerator physicists and engineers who went on to play leading roles in the construction of light sources around the world," said Payman Mortazavi, a mechanical engineer who was hired by van Steenbergen to work on the new project. "The great success of the synchrotron field today is partially due to this man, who was a dedicated physicist, engineer, manager, and above all, a loving human being."

First conceived of in 1970, the NSLS was given the go-ahead by the Department of Energy in 1977 with a tight deadline (four years) and an even tighter budget ($24 million). Determined to complete the project on time and within budget, van Steenbergen – a tireless worker himself – set a demanding pace for the project.

Said Crease: "He arrived early, stayed late, and ate a simple dinner in his office. Hank Hsieh, the Chief Engineer of the NSLS, often left at 10:30 or 11:00 at night, and recalls always preceding van Steenbergen…Everyone worked on weekends and most holidays. At the convivial Christmas parties, secretaries collected food to take down to the scientists working on the machine. Visitors to the laboratory often remarked that, late at night when the rest of the buildings in the laboratory were almost all dark, the third floor of Building 911 was always ablaze with light and activity."

Many technical compromises were made to cut back costs, which in some cases, led to new innovations. Van Steenbergen, for example, created the focusing lattice of the NSLS booster, later called a "gradient FODO" lattice, with horizontally focusing quadrupole magnets and horizontal defocusing dipoles – a combination that was both economical and smart.

Overall, accomplishments of the barebones team led by van Steenbergen were amazing, Mortazavi said, especially considering that the work was completed without the assistance of computers and on a machine with so many complexities.

Shortly after the dedication of the NSLS building, van Steenbergen became the NSLS Deputy Department Chair, a position he held until he returned to research in 1984. He participated in the first free electron laser (FEL) experiment on the VUV Ring of the NSLS and also conducted notable work on inverse FEL experiments at the Accelerator Test Facility. In addition, van Steenbergen was a co-author of the first design of the Neutron Spallation Source (recently built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory) and served as a member of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider Accelerator Advisory Committee before the facility's construction at the Laboratory.

Van Steenbergen retired from the Laboratory in 1995 but continued to collaborate on projects as a guest scientist and consultant for years after. He is survived by his wife, Jannie, four children, and numerous grandchildren.


Last Modified: March 23, 2009