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Edward Leonard Fireman (1922–1990)

Published onSep 01, 1992
Edward Leonard Fireman (1922–1990)

Edward L. Fireman, a nuclear physicist and meteoriticist who specialized in research on cosmic rays, solar flares, muons, and neutrinos, died suddenly of a massive heart attack on March 29, 1990, a few days after his 68th birthday.

Ed Fireman was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father, Nathan Fireman, had emigrated to America from Kiev when he was 14, and his mother, Anna Kaplan, had emigrated from Kovno, Lithuania, when she was 16 years old. The couple met and married in Pittsburgh where they raised Ed, his older sister and his two younger brothers. Ultimately, all four children earned university degrees, a source of great pride to their parents.

Ed's father opened a small grocery store for which Ed chose the name "Sanitary Meat Market". The family lived above the store and the children were expected to help with the chores. At the age of ten, Ed became the cashier, a duty he soon found to be onerous and one from which his mother relieved him as often as possible. The children attended public elementary and high schools, where Ed excelled in mathematics. He also showed an interest in music which his mother cultivated by buying him a violin. Presently, he was playing first violinist in his school orchestra. His family's earliest ambitions that he should become a rabbi began to give way to hopes that he might make a career as a musician. The violin proved to be a very fine one, made in the 1850s, and he kept it throughout his life. However, when he graduated from high school at the young age of 16 he entered the Carnegie Institute of Technology to major in engineering. By serving as a lifeguard at a public pool in Pittsburgh, Ed earned enough money each summer to pay his college tuition.

At Carnegie Tech, Professor Fred Seitz introduced Ed to physics, thereby changing the course of his career. Ed took his BS degree in mathematics in 1942. He then served as an Instructor at Carnegie Tech and also performed research for the Manhattan Project while working toward an MS degree in physics. Ed volunteered for service during World War II but was deferred because of the strategic importance of his work on the Manhattan Project. He received his MS degree in 1945 and went to Princeton where he began a thesis on double beta decay with Professor John Wheeler as his advisor.

When Ed visited home one weekend in the spring of 1947, his brother's fiance arranged a blind date for him with Rita Seidman, who had just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. Three weeks later, Ed proposed marriage, and three months later, in September 1947, Ed and Rita married. The following year Ed completed his thesis and received his PhD and Rita gave birth to their first son, Bruce.

Ed continued his research at Princeton for two more years as an Atomic Energy Commission Postdoctoral Fellow. In 1950 he moved to the Brookhaven National Laboratory where he began investigating the cosmic-ray production of tritium in the earth's atmosphere. Using Brookhaven's new graphite reactor and the 3.3 GeV proton synchrotron, he studied the production of tritium from nitrogen by fast neutrons and high energy protons. For measurements of tritium in water samples, he designed an innovative experiment using a continuously sensitive diffusion cloud chamber in which tritium decay appeared as a minute cloud.

While at Brookhaven Ed pioneered research on cosmogenic isotopes in meteorites. To investigate the origin of3 He in iron meteorites, he and a colleague bombarded iron targets with high energy protons, and showed that much of the3 He could result from tritium decay. They concluded that the ratio of tritium to accumulated3 He could be used to measure cosmic-ray exposure ages of iron meteorites. To better constrain this problem, he persuaded the curator of meteorites at Harvard University to allow slabs to be sawed through two large iron meteorites, Carbo and Grant, at the United States Arsenal at Watertown, Massachusetts. Ed took samples at regular intervals across the sawed surfaces and measured3 He by neutron activation. His results yielded contour maps revealing an incremental decrease of3 He with depth and also showed that, aside from hollows scooped from the surfaces by ablation, the irons had their irregular shapes before they entered the atmosphere.

In 1956 Ed accepted an invitation from Professor Fred L. Whipple of Harvard University to join the scientific staff of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). As its newly appointed Director, Whipple recently had moved the SAO from Washington to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it was housed under the same roof with both the Harvard College Observatory and the Department of Astronomy. Ed was the first scientist to build an experimental laboratory at the SAO and he filled a large room with racks of glass bulbs and tubing for gas extraction which made the Fireman lab a favorite background for film and TV depictions of science in action. Ed was appointed a Lecturer in the Department of Astronomy and he presented seminars and colloquia in the departments of physics and geology.

In the early 1960s, Ed began measurements of the short-lived isotopes37 Ar and39 Ar, in meteorites from recently witnessed falls. As news of his project spread, specimens from many fresh falls were sent to him for nondestructive counting. Eventually, he built a data base which enabled him to make the first serious attempt to measure the gradient of the cosmic ray flux in the solar system. Ed also sought evidence for a possible relationship between cosmic radiation and the 11-year solar activity cycle.

Over the years Ed expanded his studies to numerous species of cosmogenic isotopes which he measured in meteorites, recovered satellite fragments, lunar soils, and samples of cosmic dust. Throughout the Apollo program he studied solar-flare effects and the evolution of the lunar regolith by measuring tritium and radiogenic Ar isotopes in lunar soils and cores.

Ed became intrigued with the possibilities of finding extraterrestrial components in the Greenland ice sheet. In the 1960s he set up an imaginative experiment to search for26 AI and other cosmogenic isotopes by gamma-ray counting of dust samples filtered from melted ice. He detected only60 Co, which he attributed to irradiated60 Fe. The polar regions continued to interest him and in the late 1980s, Ed devised a new way of dating ice layers in the Antarctic ice sheet by measuring uranium-series radioactivity in trapped bands of volcanic dust.

One of Ed's major projects, lasting many years, employed radiochemical solar neutrino detectors, placed deep in the earth, to measure the muon background. He tested some of his instruments in the subway tunnel beneath Boston Harbor, where the maintenance crews always were willing to stop a train to allow the man they called "Eddie" or "the Doc" to step off into a crawl space. He set up detectors at various sites including a deep mine in India. One day when Ed found himself in a rickshaw being pulled by a thin, young Indian, he proposed a swap, and jogged through the crowds while his passenger gleefully hailed friends and strangers on all sides. Every morning after that, the young man was at the door of the hotel waiting to take Ed to the mine.

In the 1980s Ed mounted a joint effort with colleagues from Brookhaven, the University of Pennsylvania, and Los Alamos to measure the muon background with neutrino detectors, emplaced at a depth of 1.5 km in the Homestake gold mine of South Dakota's Black Hills. Fortuitously, the apparatus was operational in time for the supernova of 1987, and the readings allowed Ed to place constraints on the abundance of neutrinos reaching the earth and of energetic neutrinos and WIMPs in the universe. The muon experiment was completed in 1990, but Ed died before undertaking the massive job of data analysis in which he was to have played the principal role.

Ed was a fellow of the Meteoritical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the American Astronomical Society, the American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union, the Federation of Atomic Scientists, and the International Astronomical Union, which he served as president of Commission 22a from 1961 to 1964.

In 1986 he joined three other scientists at the SAO (which by then had become a member of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) who wished to express their opposition to the "Star Wars" project and to promote scientifically responsible approaches to nuclear arms issues. They issued a 4-page paper entitled "Astronomers and the Arms Race" four times each year and sent it to subscribers around the world, with complimentary copies going to congressmen and others in key policy-making positions. Ed greatly enjoyed writing editorials, articles, and book reviews on issues he felt were of vital importance. Ed lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of the Cold War. A few months after he died, with much of the urgency gone, the paper ceased publication in January, 1991.

Ed is survived by his wife, Rita, of Newton, Massachusetts; two sons, Bruce of Berkeley, California, and Gary of Lubbock, Texas; a daughter, Ellen, of Urbana, Illinois; and five grandchildren. At Harvard University, the Edward L. Fireman Fellowship has been established to be awarded each year by the Chair of the Department of Astronomy to a doctoral student engaged in experimental work in a field related to nuclear astrophysics.

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