At first, Roy J. Glauber thought it might have been a prank when the phone rang in his Arlington home at 5:36 a.m. in October 2005 and a voice with a Swedish accent said he would share that year’s Nobel Prize in physics. “I could scarcely believe him,” Dr. Glauber said hours later at a news conference.
His skepticism was understandable. At the time, Dr. Glauber was an 80-year-old Harvard University professor. The Nobel was for work he had done more than four decades earlier: an influential paper he published in 1963 that furthered the understanding of how matter and light interact.
Along with fielding congratulatory calls and speaking before a bank of cameras that October day, Dr. Glauber had other work he wouldn’t set aside. A devoted and passionate teacher of students at all levels, he arrived right on schedule to teach “The Atomic Nucleus on the World Stage” — a freshman physics class.
Dr. Glauber, who had been recruited as an 18-year-old to join the Manhattan Project during World War II, and who was still at work last year, died Dec. 26 in Newton-Wellesley Hospital of respiratory failure. He was 93 and had lived in Arlington.
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The Nobel committee said Dr. Glauber’s half of the 2005 physics prize was “for his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence.” John L. Hall and Theodor W. Hansch shared the other half “for their contributions to the development of laser-based spectroscopy.”
Dr. Glauber’s research “helped clarify how light could have both wave and particle characteristics, and explained the fundamental differences between the light emitted by hot objects, such as electric light bulbs, and the light emitted by lasers,” The Optical Society said in a memorial tribute that is posted online.
Known for his humor in and out of the classroom, Dr. Glauber added a little levity to the beginning of his Nobel lecture, when he accepted the award two months after being awakened by that early-morning call.
“We have had light quanta on earth for eons, in fact ever since the good Lord said, ‘Let there be quantum electrodynamics’ — which is a modern translation, of course, from the biblical Aramaic,” he quipped.
For many years, Dr. Glauber was also a regular at the irreverent Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard, where annual awards recognize quirky scientific achievements. He was the keeper of the broom — sweeping paper airplanes from the stage — and sometimes handed out the prizes.
The Mallinckrodt professor of physics emeritus at Harvard, Dr. Glauber taught there and at other schools for more than 65 years. He attended a conference in Barcelona just last summer, and “literally only retired from Harvard last year,” said his daughter, Valerie Glauber Fleishman of Newton.
Into his 90s, Dr. Glauber still accepted interview requests from young students who were preparing science or history projects — he spoke with some of them via Skype. “He just loved supporting young people and he was completely dedicated to advancing education and science,” his daughter said.
Although “some professors will only teach graduate students, he taught undergraduates, he taught freshman core curriculum courses, he even taught in the extension school,” said his son, Jeffrey Glauber of Doylestown, Pa.
At one point, Dr. Glauber gave lectures one night a week to students from 24 high schools, providing “a panoramic view of the structure of light and of matter.” It was a version of Harvard’s “waves, particles, and the structure of matter” core curriculum course for non-science majors. “The course itself is not intended to be very formal; it is meant to be as enjoyable as it is instructive,” he told the Globe in 1988.
Indeed, Dr. Glauber “always turned teaching into a production,” his son said. “He would bring in the Harvard band to play, and then show on the screen the waves of their music, and what it looked like. He brought science to life.”
The older of two children, Dr. Glauber was born in New York City on Sept. 1, 1925. His father, Emanuel Glauber, was a traveling salesman. His mother, Felicia Fox, had studied to be a teacher.
In his early boyhood, “we rarely spent more than two days in any one town, mostly in the eastern US,” he said in a 2013 interview for Voices of the Manhattan Project, run by the Atomic Heritage Foundation and the Los Alamos Historical Society. “And my only playmate, my only companion at the time, was my mother.”
Because of her education background, “she was teaching him as they went from city to city,” Dr. Glauber’s son said.
When Dr. Glauber’s sister was born, the family settled in New York City, living at various times in Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx.
Dr. Glauber was in the first class to graduate from the Bronx High School of Science, and he received an award for outstanding achievement. Several months earlier, he had created telescopes for a science contest. His prize was a trip to the Pittsburgh manufacturing plant of Westinghouse, The New York Times reported.
Having skipped a couple of grades, he turned 16 in the fall of 1941 as he entered Harvard. In October 1943, when Dr. Glauber was barely 18, “a stranger in a dark suit appeared in the physics department office evidently asking for me,” he wrote in his Nobel biography. The man offered the chance to engage in “interesting work” somewhere “out west.”
That turned out to be the Manhattan Project. Dr. Glauber worked in the theory division and witnessed the Trinity Test of the first nuclear weapon. He recalled seeing the bomb’s flash “and some of the glow that followed from a distance of over a hundred miles.”
After the war, he returned to Harvard and graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project, invited Dr. Glauber to conduct postdoctoral research at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where he met and spoke with Albert Einstein. “Our paths thus crossed quite a few times,” Dr. Glauber said in his Nobel lecture, in which he included a photo he had shot of Einstein during an encounter in 1951.
The following year, Dr. Glauber returned to Harvard, which was his academic home the remainder of his life.
In 1960, he married Cynthia Rich. They had two children and their marriage ended in divorce in 1975. Subsequently, he raised his children as a single parent, an experience he described as “immensely rewarding.”
“I’m sure there is some number of papers I never got to write as a result,” he wrote in his Nobel biography, “but raising those children and seeing them succeed was not an experience I would trade for the missing papers or any sort of recognition.”
A private burial will be held for Dr. Glauber, who in addition to his children leaves his sister, Jacqueline Gordon of San Juan Capistrano, Calif.; Atholie Rosett of Cambridge, his girlfriend during his final 13 years; and five grandchildren.
Modest despite his many accomplishments, Dr. Glauber wore lightly the honor of winning many prestigious awards, topped by the Nobel.
“I just received a telephone call, believe it or not, from Stockholm,” he said in a phone message he left for his daughter a few minutes after he was awakened in October 2005. He chuckled and said: “It’s a little too much to believe. I’ve just won the Nobel Prize.”
Dr. Glauber added that he had won half the prize and then, rather than talk about himself, praised his fellow scientists instead. “Ted Hansch and John Hall have, between them, won half the prize,” he said. “I would have told you they had done a lot more than I’ve done.”
Published by permission from The Boston Globe