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Princeton University nuclear physicist Rubby Sherr, whose work on the Manhattan Project helped usher in the Atomic Age and whose academic publications span nearly 80 years, died July 8 of natural causes at the Quadrangle independent-living community in Haverford, Pa. He was 99.
Colleagues and family describe Sherr — whose name is pronounced “Ruby” — as a tireless researcher with an engaging personality. He was a raconteur and connoisseur of jokes, fly-fishing and folk songs whose exploration of nuclear physics persisted until shortly before his death. Sherr published his first paper in 1936 while a graduate student at Princeton, and published his last six papers this year. He spent nearly 40 years at Princeton, joining the faculty in 1946 and transferring to professor of physics, emeritus, in 1982.
Early in his career, Sherr witnessed one of the most seminal events of human history: the first atomic explosion, known as “Trinity.” In 1944, Sherr, then affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was sent to the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico as part of the team charged with developing the “trigger,” or initiator, for the plutonium-fired atomic bomb being produced under the Manhattan Project (a uranium-fired bomb also was underway). He was on site July 16, 1945, when, using the initiator design Sherr had developed, the plutonium bomb was detonated, heralding the dawn of the Atomic Age.
Sherr recalled the event in an interview with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin marking his retirement. He was monitoring the explosion through an oscilloscope when the observation bunker was flooded with bright light.
Whereas project member and “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled a line from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita — “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” — Sherr said: “My first reaction was to yell, ‘Who the hell turned on the lights?’ Then I looked outside and thought, ‘This is the greatest scientific experiment of all time’ — at least, it was certainly the biggest. Then the horror sank in that the thing had actually worked, followed by relief that the atmosphere hadn’t ignited as some had feared it would.”
Sherr successfully applied his mind beyond his immediate discipline. In 1941, The New York Times reported that Sherr, then an instructor at Harvard University, had transmuted mercury into platinum and gold — a tweak of physics that was close enough to alchemy to be notable. In 1953, Sherr was granted a patent for a kind of Doppler radar that detected moving objects on the ground — a precursor to the radar gun that he had begun work on for the military during World War II.
“He would joke that when you got a speeding ticket it was his fault,” said Sherr’s daughter Frances “Fran” Sherr. She said that outside of his lab, Sherr was known for his sense of humor and storytelling. Along with his wife Rita “Pat” Sherr (a former social-science librarian at the Institute for Advanced Study; Pat died in 1997), Rubby often hosted gatherings of colleagues and students, as well as musicians, artists and writers.
Born in 1913 in Long Branch, N.J., Sherr entered college when his mother, a Lithuanian immigrant, personally took him in to enroll at New York University, Fran said. He received his bachelor’s degree from NYU in 1934, then his doctorate in physics from Princeton in 1938.
Sherr is survived by his daughters Fran (Robert Hess) of Wynnewood, Pa., and Elizabeth Sherr Sklar (Lawrence Sklar) of Ann Arbor, Mich., as well as by his granddaughter, Jessica Sklar of Seattle.
A campus memorial service will be planned. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to Quadrangle Board Education Fund, 3300 Darby Rd., Haverford, PA 19041, or to a preferred charity.