Lewis Branscomb, Champion of Science Across Fields, Dies at 96

As the Cold War was waning, physicist Louis Branscombe feared that America’s economic and scientific superiority was at stake. He believed that the decline in scientific literacy and critical thinking in American education could have disastrous consequences for the country.

He told students in 1986 on PBS’s The McNeil/Lehrer Newshour, “You don’t need to know a lot of facts about science, but how do you know how scientists think, how scientific thinks are?” It is a problem-solving approach that considers complex environments in which you need to understand how to think and make decisions. “

Whether in academia, private industry, or government, Dr. Branscombe made it his job to advance scientific progress and give science a greater role in public policy. He holds out hope for a brighter future with technology, but only if scientists and policymakers can convince the public to support the idea, he said.

Dr. Branscombe, who spent his career blending science, technology, policy and business, died May 31 at a nursing home in Redwood City, California, according to his son Harvey. he was 96 years old.

From 1969 to 1972, Dr. Branscombe headed the National Institute of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the prestigious federal government laboratory for standards and measurements. He later served as chief scientist at his IBM and professor at Harvard University. He has authored hundreds of papers and authored or contributed to about a dozen books.

Dr. Branscombe began working in government shortly after World War II, and almost 60 years later advised the Senate on America’s vulnerabilities following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

During that time he developed basic science and technology and improved measurements at the National Bureau of Standards. IBM helped transform its computers from giant mainframes that could cost more than a car to something that could fit in a home office. He advised several presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, on policy issues, particularly the space program.

Former IBM researcher and executive Irving Wladowski-Berger said in a telephone interview that Dr. Branscombe played a key role in leading the company’s development of computer memory and storage, networking products, semiconductors and other technologies. said. “We had a vision of making IBM a world-class research company,” said Dr. Branscombe.

Branscomb called for technology growth to be driven not only by the Pentagon and other government agencies, but also by private industry, and expressed concern that the end of the space race with the Soviet Union had led to the decline of NASA.

“This is where NASA once challenged the industry to surpass what was done before,” he said. testimony before Congress In 1991, he wrote, “Today, the best commercial companies are taking more risks, expanding their technology even further, and reaching levels of performance and reliability that NASA can no longer achieve or even expect. “

It is the responsibility of scientists to rekindle society’s enthusiasm for their research, Dr. Branscomb said in Confessions of a Technophile (1995). It is the scientific community’s responsibility to recognize the legitimacy of the public’s aspirations.” , in the excitement of new discoveries. “

Louis McAdrie Blancombe was born on August 17, 1926 in Asheville, North Carolina, to Harvey Blancombe and Margaret (Vaughan) Blancombe. His father was Dean of Theology and Librarian at Duke University, and later President of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His mother oversaw the planting of magnolia trees throughout Vanderbilt’s campus and was gifted with her monument. bronze statue There.

A promising student from an early age, Lewis dropped out of high school for accelerated education at Duke University as part of a naval program to train future scientists.

By the age of 19, he had a BS in Physics and then served as an officer in the Naval Reserve. He left his naval service in 1946 to enter Harvard University, earning his master’s degree a year later and his doctorate in 1949.

In 1951, Dr. Branscombe became a research physicist at the National Bureau of Standards, a division of the Department of Commerce and one of the oldest federal physical science laboratories, studying the structure and spectra of molecular and atomic anions. I was.

In the early 1960s, he moved from Washington to Boulder, Colorado, where he founded the Joint Laboratory Astrophysics Institute (now known as JILA), a joint research institute between the Bureau of Standards and the University of Colorado to advance astrophysical research. contributed to the establishment of He later served as chairman of the Institute.

He joined President Johnson’s Scientific Advisory Board in the mid-1960s as the Apollo program prepared to land astronauts on the moon in 1969. That year, President Nixon named him director of the Bureau of Standards, a position he held until his retirement from IBM. in 1972.

He was IBM’s principal scientist until 1986. During this period, the company manufactured parts for the space shuttle, built computer mainframes, and entered the personal computer market against competitors such as Apple and Tandy.

In 1980, Dr. Branscombe became chairman of the National Science Board, which established policy for the National Science Foundation and advised Congress and the President. He held the position until his 1984.

Dr. Branscomb retired from IBM to become Professor and Director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He has also served on the boards of companies such as Mobil and General Foods.

His authored and edited books include Empowering Technology: Implementing U.S. Policy (1993), Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism (2002, Richard Klausner et al. co-authored with), etc.

Dr. Branscombe gets married Margaret Ann Wells, was a lawyer and computer communications specialist in the early 1950s. She died in 1997.

In 2005, he married Constance Hammond Marin, and they lived together for many years in San Diego’s La Jolla neighborhood. she survives him.

His survivors include his daughter, KC Kelly, in addition to his wife and son. Three stepchildren, Stephen J. Mullin, Keith Mullin and Laura Thompson. and his granddaughter.

In his preface to Confessions of a Technofile, Dr. Branscomb describes himself as “always driven by a deep conviction that the brighter prospects of mankind depend on the wise and creative use of technology” and “an incurable disease.” an optimist,” he said.

He added in a footnote that he was an optimist “by argument” rather than by logic.

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