As the Cold War was winding down, physicist Lewis Branscomb feared that America’s economic and scientific superiority was under threat. He believed that the decline of scientific literacy and critical thinking in American education could have disastrous consequences for the country.
He told “The McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS in 1986, “Students don’t need to know a lot of facts about science, but they really need to understand how scientists go about thinking.” thinking—that is, a problem-solving approach to decision-making given a complex environment.”
Whether in academia, private industry or government, Dr. Branscomb made it his job to emphasize the advancement of science and give it a greater role in public policy. He hoped for a brighter future through technology, but only if scientists and policy makers could get the public behind the idea.
Dr. Branscomb, who worked at the nexus of science, technology, policy and business throughout his career, died May 31 at a care facility in Redwood City, California, said his son, Harvey. He was 96 years old.
Dr. Branscombe headed the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the official standards and measurements laboratory of the federal government, from 1969 to 1972. He later served as chief scientist at IBM, was a professor at Harvard University, wrote hundreds of journals and wrote or contributed to nearly a dozen books.
Dr. Branscomb began working for the government in the wake of World War II and nearly six decades later advised the Senate on America’s vulnerabilities following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In the interim, he developed basic scientific techniques and sophisticated measurements at the National Bureau of Standards; helped IBM transform its computers from bulky mainframes that could cost more than an automobile to something that could fit in a home office; and Lyndon B. Advised several presidents, including Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, on policy matters, especially the space program.
Former IBM researcher and executive Irving Vladowski-Berger said in a phone interview that Dr. Branscomb played a major role at the company when she was leading the development of technology such as computer memory and storage, networking products and semiconductors. Dr. Branscomb, he said, “had a vision to ensure that IBM was a world-class research company.”
Dr. Branscomb called for technological development to be driven by private industry as well as by the Department of Defense and other government agencies, and expressed concern that the end of the space race with the Soviet Union had led to NASA’s decline.
“Where once NASA challenged industry to go further than ever before,” he said. Testify before Congress In 1991, “Today, the best commercial companies take more risks, advancing their technology, reaching levels of performance and reliability that NASA no longer achieves or even aspires to.” “
Scientists have a responsibility to rekindle enthusiasm for their work in society, wrote Dr. Branscombe in “Confessions of a Technophile” (1995), arguing that it is up to the scientific community to “make up its mind to participate.” accept the validity of the will of the people, however superficially”, in the spirit of the new discovery.
Lewis McAdory Branscomb was born on August 17, 1926, in Asheville, NC, to Harvey and Margaret (Vaughan) Branscomb. His father was dean of the theology school and library director at Duke University and then chancellor of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His mother oversaw the planting of magnolia trees on the Vanderbilt campus and was honored with a monument Sculpture There.
A promising student from a young age, Lewis left high school early and received an accelerated education at Duke as part of a Navy program to train future scientists.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at age 19, then served as an officer in the Naval Reserve. He left naval duty in 1946 to enroll at Harvard, where he earned his master’s degree a year later and his doctorate in 1949.
In 1951, Dr. Branscomb became a research physicist, studying the structure and spectra of molecular and atomic negative ions for the National Bureau of Standards, a branch of the Department of Commerce and one of the oldest federal physical science research laboratories .
In the early 1960s he moved from Washington to Boulder, Col., where he helped establish the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, now known as JILA, a collaboration between the Bureau of Standards and the University of Colorado that seeks to advance astrophysics research. He later served as the president of the institute.
He joined President Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee in the mid-1960s, as the Apollo program was preparing to land astronauts on the Moon in 1969. That year, President Nixon named him director of the Bureau of Standards, a position he held until leaving for IBM. in 1972.
He was IBM’s chief scientist until 1986, a period when the company made components for the space shuttle, built computer mainframes, and entered the personal computer market against rivals such as Apple and Tandy.
In 1980, Dr. Branscomb became chairman of the National Science Board, which sets the policies of the National Science Foundation and advises Congress and the President. He remained on this post till 1984.
Dr. Branscomb, Harvard’s John F. Left IBM to become Professor and Director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School of Government. He also served on the boards of corporations such as Mobil and General Foods.
Books written and edited by him include “Empowering Technology: Implementing a US Policy” (1993) and “Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism” (2002, with Richard Klausner and others) .
Dr. Branscomb married Margaret Anne WellsIn the early 1950s, a lawyer and expert in computer communications. He died in 1997.
In 2005 he married Constance Hammond Mullin, with whom he lived in the La Jolla section of San Diego for many years. She escapes from him.
In addition to his wife and son, his survivors include a daughter, Casey Kelly; Three stepchildren, Stephen J. Mullin, Keith Mullin and Laura Thompson; and a granddaughter.
In the preface to “Confessions of a Technophile,” Dr. Branscombe describes himself as an “incorrigible optimist” who “has been driven throughout my life by the deep belief that bright possibilities for mankind lie in the intelligent and creative power of technology.” depend on the usage.”
He added in a footnote that he was optimistic “by claim”, not by reason.