Search form

David Norman Schramm (1945 - 1997)

David Schramm died on Friday the 19th of December 1997.

David N. Schramm was born on October 25, 1945, in St. Louis, Missouri and died December 19, 1997, when the plane he was piloting crashed near Byers, Colorado. He was en route to a family gathering in Aspen for the holidays. He was one of the most influential astrophysicists of his generation, and we will miss him.

Dave had a long list of papers and others honors of which he was justifiably proud. An undergraduate at MIT, he became a graduate student at Caltech, working with Willy Fowler and Gerry Wasserburg on nuclear astrophysics and cosmochronology. As did many of us, he imbibed the notion that "they who work hard deserve to play hard." Astrophysics was just too much fun not to be taken seriously.

When an assistant professorship became open at the University of Texas at Austin, there was little doubt that the most interesting and amusing choice was this big red-headed wrestler from Missouri, with his fresh PhD. He set a tone in his first teaching assignment, introductory astronomy, by teaching the students how to cast their own horoscopes, reasoning that this would remove the mystery and the attraction. This developed into a deep interest in sharing the fun and excitement of science with non-scientists.

I recall one party at which I found a sheepish Dave, some howling astrophysicists, and fresh egg on my ceiling. It seems that "the shape of an egg resists pressure so well that, if you put it firmly in your palm, you can't crush it. ... " Dave found a way. He was more Caesar than Hamlet: active, energetic, searching for some new way of thinking or doing, preferring power to subtlety, focused upon the end game.

One of Schramm's most influential scientific contributions was his involvement in connecting astronomy and particle physics. Struck by the pioneering work of Wagoner, Fowler, and Hoyle, which made quantitative predictions of cosmological nucleosynthesis, Dave wondered if deuterium was a relic of the Big Bang. Richard Epstein and I had a part in clarifying this issue with Dave, establishing that deuterium was not made in supernova explosions, the most plausible alternative. Then followed the paper with Jim Gunn, Richard Gott, and Beatrice Tinsley, which showed that the simplest model of the Big Bang, taken with the observed abundances of helium and deuterium, implied that the number of neutrino families was three (and also that relatively local considerations strongly suggested an open universe). He began working on the implications of the neutral current theory of weak interactions for neutrino escape from collapsing cores of supernovae. I recall a comment, which was almost true at the time, that Dave was "the only astronomer interested in physics of neutral currents."

Dave did not invent the role of Hiking Physicist (it goes back at least to Bohr and his Institute), but he did personify it. Extremely competent and cool in emergency, Dave went further than other physicists, and his scrapes were more often public, whether being plucked off the Eiger with Dave Dearborn by helicopter (and being billed for it), or happily(?) munching rations on a face in the Maroon Bells because it was too dark to get down until morning.

Schramm and Leon Lederman instituted a cosmology group at Fermilab. With Mike Turner, Rocky Kolb, and colleagues and students in the group, Dave had much to do with making astronomers and particle physicists realize they had common interests. This was an irreversible change in viewpoint, a sort of Copernican revolution for particle physicists—there is not just a world, but a universe outside the accelerator building, which obeys the same laws and is relevant to our search for understanding.

His contributions to the institutional side of science bear the same stamp of activity and imagination. He loved Aspen, worked in intensive Schramm style for the Aspen Center for Physics, and was instrumental in putting its future on a firm footing, with title to the grounds and a new building. He was an active Vice-President for Research at the University of Chicago, and, after serving as chair of the Board of Physics and Astronomy of the National Research Council, he organized and led the decadal review of physics which is now in its final stages. Schramm had been elected to additional positions of responsibility in both the AAS and the AAAS shortly before his death.

His success was not without distress as well. Not all problems are soluble. Dave was a dynamo, and living near a dynamo can be difficult. I was as impressed by Dave's fortitude as by his continuing search for positive options. The third time was the charm; his marriage to Judy Ward seemed to have brought Dave as close to serenity as anyone that active is likely to be.

One of the last times I saw Dave fit a pattern. He had just flown into Kyoto to deliver a talk on cosmological nucleosynthesis. We went out for dinner, and for lots of talk of old times and new science. The next day, Dave flew back to meetings in the US and in Europe. It is difficult to believe that he is not still flying somewhere out there, and that, maybe, for some future meeting, he will fly in again.

Other short obituaries have appeared or will appear in Nature, Physics World, Physics Today, the New York Times, and elsewhere. A longer notice is scheduled for the Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences.

Photo (available in PDF version) courtesy of the University of Chicago.

Obituary Written By: 
David Arnett (Regents Professor, Steward Observatory, University of Arizona)
BAAS: BAAS, 1998, 30, 1465