Jane Vaynman"Pief" Panofsky, renowned physicist and arms control advocate, dies at 88

Wolfgang Panofsky, director emeritus at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, died of a heart attack on Monday evening. He was 88.

There is much to be said about Dr. Panofsky’s contributions, from his pioneering research at Los Alamos, Stanford, and Berkeley, as well as his contributions to the policy debate on proliferation and nuclear security. I’m sure many of ACW readers may have personal recollections of his life or his work, which I invite you to share.

A few years ago I watched Dr. Panofsky lead a panel in a National Academies Symposium, marking the 60th Anniversary of Trinity. NAS hosted an incredible group of speakers, all of whom were there at Trinity. Dr. Panofsky’s closing comments still stand out in my mind:

Throughout human history proliferation of any new technology for either peace or war – be it fire, gun powder, steel fabrication, electronics, or whatever – has never been stopped, but in response to Trinity we must stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But how can we accomplish this? Treaties and other international agreements have been very successful in slowing proliferation, but in the long run each sovereign state on this globe must be persuaded that its National Security is better served without possessing nuclear weapons than with them. It also requires each state now possessing nuclear weapons to examine critically whether their stockpiles of these weapons and of the critical materials to make them are truly consistent with their National Security – not to meet short range contingencies but to serve the long range true security of the nation.

-W.K.H. Panofsky, prepared remarks for Academies Symposium 60th Anniversary of Trinity, July 15, 2005.

Panofsky’s last published article, “Nuclear Insecurity,” appears in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs. Additionally, his autobiography Panofsky on Physics, Politics, and Peace: Pief Remembers will be out in mid October.


  1. Amyfw (History)

    Can I go first?

    In January 1980, I was a Junior at Stanford, and I took the lecture series portion of the school’s arms control program (Poli Sci 138A, if I remember correctly) to meet an internal distribution requirement of the Poli Sci department. I had no particular interest in the subject, it just fit into my schedule. That’s where I first encountered Professor Panofsky. He, and several other professors in the program, not only spurred my interest in the arms control world, but also have served as my conscience and compass for more than 25 years. Simply put, I would not be here today if it were not for these wonderful mentors. I feel honored to have been taught my trade by Panofsky and several others who qualify as the “first generation” of nuclear weapons and arms control experts.

  2. John Field (History)

    Yeah, I took PS 138A in, I guess, 1984 and I feel the same way about Panofsky.

  3. Margaret Kosal (History)

    My condolences to his family.

  4. Beryll1um (History)

    That would be “renowned” …
    Let’s not have another Aluminum/Aluminium split.

  5. Peter Zimmerman (History)

    Back in the spring of 1960 I was a freshman physics major at Stanford and Pief was my professor for intro electricity and magnetism. I well remember the first mid-term exam: it had 50 points, and I scored a seven (7). That was an “A” on the curve. For academic ’60-‘61 I had the enormous good fortune to have Pief as my adviser, a situation where I got to see him for an hour or so every couple of weeks, because he was simply incredibly available to his students. And a year later I was asked to grade papers for him.

    He was an inspiration to my physics, and as I advanced in the profession and got interested in arms control he again became a mentor in that field.

    Pief was a wonderful man, brilliant, involved, dedicated, and active until essentially his last moments. The San Francisco Chronicle carried his most recent op-ed… two days after he died (see paper for 26 Sept).

    I’m grateful for my good fortune in knowing him well and for so long.

    I miss him. My condolences to his marvelous family.

    Peter Zimmerman

  6. Devabhaktuni Srikrishna (History)

    I wrote up a few comments on his memorial service at SLAC from last Friday on my blog. See http://srispot.wordpress.com/2007/09/30/pief-panofsky-a-great-great-guy/