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Serge Alexander Korff (1906–1989)

Published onSep 01, 1991
Serge Alexander Korff (1906–1989)

Those of us who, for whatever reason, have had the good fortune to achieve some success in life have a clear obligation to make our talent available to the scientific and other institutions, including the government, if asked, for the good of all our colleagues and fellow citizens.

This credo was appended to Serge Korff's (June 5, 1906 - Dec. 1 1989) entry in Who's Who in America. He would have thought if fitting to be the lead of his obituary as it guided most of his adult life. A pioneer in the study of cosmic ray neutrons, educator, inventor, explorer, he was at his best as a world ambassador of science, preferably in full dress uniform (black or white tie with medals). Born in Helsinki, Finland, he was the son of a Russian Baron and an American daughter of a retired Surgeon General and one time President of The American Red Cross. His father, a professor of History of Russian Law at the University of Helsinki, became Lieutenant Governor of Finland before fleeing to the United States after the October Revolution of 1917.

At Princeton he earned his B.A. (1928), M.A. (1929), and Ph.D. (1931). A National Research Fellow at the Mount Wilson Observatory and the California Institute of Technology (1932 - 1935), a Research Fellow of the Bartol Research Foundation of The Franklin Institute (1936 - 1940), he joined the Physics Department of New York University in 1941, rising to Professor in 1945. Retired Emeritus in 1973, Korff continued to write and take leadership roles in scientific organizations. During a productive research career, he authored over 175 scientific and technical papers, a fundamental nuclear instrument treatise, Electron and Nuclear Counters (Van Nostrand, 1946, 1955) and revised a classic text, Electron and Nuclear Physics written initially by J. B. Hoag (Van Nostrand, 1948). Serving as a scientific reporter and editor in astronomy, physics, geology and geography continued a family writing tradition, shared by his cousin, Vladimir Nabokov. He developed the wire proportional counter which became a critical tool for nuclear research generally and especially for neutron detection. Through the 1940's, 50's and 60's he, his students and colleagues catalogued cosmic ray produced neutrons in the high atmosphere from balloons and rockets launched worldwide. W. F. Libby, in accepting the 1960 Nobel Prize for radioactive carbon dating, acknowledged his debt to Serge Korff. Honors accorded him included: Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (1952), the Curie Medal of the International Union Against Cancer (1955), Order of Cyprus (1959), Order of St. Denis of Xanthos (1965), fellow of the Amer. Physical Soc., Amer. Geophysical Union, Royal Geographical Soc. and the AAAS. He was President of the Amer. Geographical Soc. (1966-1971), The Explorers Club (1955 - 1958 and 1961- 1963) and the New York Academy of Sciences (1972). He left, among his many legacies, a generation of astrophysicists who proudly refer to themselves as Korff's balloonatics.

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