Sidney Drell, theoretical physicist and national security expert at Stanford, dies at 90

Champion of nuclear nonproliferation, former deputy director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and winner of numerous prestigious awards, Sidney Drell was a groundbreaking researcher and outstanding leader who wanted to make the world a better place.

Sidney Drell seated

Sidney Drell, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at SLAC and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who was a staunch opponent of nuclear proliferation, died Wednesday. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Almost exactly four years ago today, Sidney Drell, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, received what he called a “surprise Christmas present.” It was the announcement that he would be presented with the National Medal of Science for his “contributions to quantum field theory and quantum chromodynamics, application of science to inform national policies in security and intelligence, and distinguished contributions as an advisor to the United States Government.” A giant in the worlds of both academia and policy, Drell died Dec. 21 at his home in Palo Alto, California. He was 90 years old.

“Sid Drell was a role model for many and in many ways – a friend since my days as a theoretical physics graduate student at Stanford, a terrific physicist and teacher, a leader in arms control and nuclear security over many decades, and an inspiration for applying scientific expertise to public service with the highest standards for integrity,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. “He embodied science in the public interest and made the world a safer place. Sid’s wisdom and humanity will be dearly missed.”

In everything he did, Drell was exceptional. He made immense contributions to his field, including a process bearing his name; his work on national and international security crossed decades and the political aisle; and his legacy as humanitarian includes his friendship and support of Soviet physicist and dissident, Andrei Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his opposition of abuse of power in the Soviet Union. Drell was also known for his welcoming nature and genuine – albeit perhaps unwarranted – humility.

“An accomplished physicist, his contributions to improve national and international security made our world a better place,” said Tom Gilligan, director of the Hoover Institution, in a statement. “We are especially grateful for Sid’s relentless dedication to eliminating the threat posed by nuclear weapons and know that his important work will continue to frame the issue.”

Dedicated to arms control

Drell’s commitment to arms controls spanned more than 50 years. In a 1979 interview with the Stanford Daily, Drell said he became involved in the issue in 1960, “when it was realized that scientists in general and physicists in particular played a significant role in World War II. People felt the need that the scientific community be part of the national security of the country. I was persuaded by this argument. The most pressing problem of this generation is to control nuclear weapons to prevent nuclear war, and I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Sidney Drell with Barack Obama

Sidney Drell receives the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony on Feb. 1, 2013. (Image credit: Ryan Morris)

As a staunch opponent of nuclear proliferation, he served as both a chair and member of numerous panels advising Congress, the intelligence community and the military. He was an original member of JASON, a group of academic scientists created to advise the government on national security and defense issues. From 1992 to 2001 he was a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He was also the co-founder of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford and, in 2006, he and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz began a program at the Hoover Institution dedicated to developing practical steps toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

“Sid Drell was a great scientist and a great American,” said Stanford Provost John Etchemendy. “He was a mentor and friend to many of us in the Stanford community and we will miss equally his wisdom and his smile, and the warmth he added to the Stanford family.”

Supporting Soviet dissidents

In 1974, Drell met Sakharov at a conference hosted by the Soviet Academy of Sciences and they became fast friends. Sakharov was one of the scientists involved in the creation of the Soviet hydrogen bomb but later came to oppose the communist government for abuse of power and denial of human rights. He was internally exiled to Gorky from 1980 to 1986 following criticism of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

During that period, Drell exchanged letters with Sakharov and called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for his release. According to the Stanford Daily, Drell also organized a petition to allow another Soviet physicist and dissident, Nohim Meiman, to emigrate to Israel. For the petition, Drell obtained the signatures of 118 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

In 2015 the Hoover Institution Press released Andrei Sakharov: The Conscience of Humanity, edited by Drell and Shultz.

An iconic physicist

Sidney David Drell was born Sept. 13, 1926, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1946, and earned a master’s degree in 1947 and PhD in physics in 1949 from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

He began at Stanford in 1950 as an instructor in physics, left to work as both a researcher and assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then returned to Stanford in 1956 as a professor of physics. Drell was an essential member of SLAC, serving as deputy director of the lab from 1969 until his retirement from the lab in 1998.

“Sid was such an accomplished physicist, he built a world-class national laboratory and he was a leader in the urgent campaign to limit nuclear arms and make the world a safer place,” said SLAC Director Chi-Chang Kao. “Most people would be satisfied in life having done just one of those things, but he managed to do it all in an exceptional way. We at SLAC join his many friends and colleagues around the world in mourning his loss and extending our deepest condolences to his family.”

Drell researched quantum electrodynamics and quantum chromodynamics. The former describes interactions between light and matter; the latter is investigation of quarks and gluons, fundamental subatomic particles. While at SLAC, he and research associate Tung-Mow Yan formulated the Drell-Yan Process, which a SLAC news feature described as an explanation of “what happens when a quark in one particle and an antiquark in a second particle annihilate into an electron and a positron.” This process has become an invaluable tool in particle physics, just one example of Drell’s iconic work.

“Sid Drell’s theoretical work was very critical in setting SLAC on the course that it took,” said Burton Richter, professor emeritus of particle physics and astrophysics at SLAC, who directed the lab from 1984 to 1999 and received the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics.

“As head of the SLAC theory group, he brought to us a whole host of a younger generation of theoretical physicists who began creating the present picture we have of the structure of matter,” Richter said. “Sid played a very important role in developing the justification for experiments and turning the results into what became the foundation of the Standard Model of particle physics.”

For his research and lifetime of service to his country, Drell received many prestigious awards, including the National Medal of Science (2011); the Enrico Fermi Award, the nation’s oldest award in science and technology; a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation; the Heinz Award for contributions in public policy; the Rumford Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal. Drell was one of 10 scientists honored as founders of satellite reconnaissance as a space discipline by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and was president of the American Physical Society in 1986.

Passionate in work and in life

Although it may seem like a person who achieved all of this would have time for little else, Drell was also an accomplished violinist who played chamber music throughout his life. He particularly enjoyed the St. Lawrence String Quartet. For his 90th birthday, Chris Costanza, the quartet’s cellist, came to Drell’s home and played two Bach unaccompanied cello suites, an experience that was very dear to Drell.

Drell is survived by his wife, Harriet, of Palo Alto, and his children, Daniel of Falls Creek, Virginia; Persis of Stanford; and Joanna of Richmond, Virginia. Persis Drell, a former director of SLAC who is also a physicist at Stanford and dean of the School of Engineering, will be the university’s next provost. The family has no requests for donations; memorial plans will be forthcoming.