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Lawrence Cranberg, Class of 1933

Lawrence Cranberg, 94, passed away on November 21, 2011 surrounded by his loving family. Cancer was the cause of death. Lawrence, a true patriot, was born on the 4th of July in 1917 in Bronx, New York, the eldest child of Fanny Rubenstein and Hyman Cranberg – Polish and Russian immigrants. Lawrence married Charlotte Mount on October 31, 1953 in New Mexico at the Old Santa Fe Courthouse. A nuclear physicist, inventor and entrepreneur, Dr. Cranberg’s career spanned seven decades, but the wonder and beauty of science was always on his mind. After graduating from Townsend Harris High School at age 16, he matriculated from the City College of New York, Harvard University, and The University of Pennsylvania.

His career in science began in 1940 at the Signal Corps. Engineering Labs where he was a Senior Physicist. Dr. Cranberg developed systems of target detection and location-based use of infra-red radiation, a precursor technology to today’s autofocus cameras. He later joined the Los Alamos National Laboratory where he became a fellow of the Atomic Energy Commission. At Los Alamos, he was a protege of Hans Bethe, and conducted groundbreaking research on high energy neutrons. Dr. Cranberg was appointed to the US delegation to the First International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy at Geneva in 1955 where he reported on his work. Among his many widely-cited publications were papers in The Scientific American and Physics Today. Dr. Cranberg also generously shared his intuitive insights with colleagues; one such insight directly led to the discovery of the neutrino. Dr. Cranberg was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 1958 – his nomination made by 1995 Nobelist and neutrino pioneer Frederick Reines and J.M.B. Kellogg. Once introduced as “Mr. Nanosecond” by Sir Denys Wilkinson to a London physics conference, Dr. Cranberg developed the means to measure a billionth of second before “nanotechnology” was a word; his “time-of-flight” method of measuring neutron spectra became the foundation for neutron spectrometry.

Following a Guggenheim fellowship in 1962, Dr. Cranberg was instrumental in securing a large federal grant to the University of Virginia to build and to become founding director of its Physics Accelerator Laboratory. He was a devoted scientist and teacher. Thirty years later, one of his grateful graduate students would endow a scholarship and faculty research in his name at George Mason University, remarking that Dr. Cranberg inspired him by exemplifying the work ethic of American scientists.

Dr. Cranberg didn’t hesitate to fight for justice whether it be the case of his own academic freedom, or his involvement in the lawsuit that eventually forced UVA to accept women into its formerly all-male undergraduate school. In 1971, after winning an AAUP hearing that declared his academic freedom had been invaded, Dr. Cranberg moved to Austin where he joined a small high-tech company, eventually starting his own firm to develop fast-neutron techniques for the treatment of cancer. He was always grateful for the welcome arms of the private sector and of Texas, calling it “The Land of Milk and Honey”. In 1975, Dr. Cranberg applied the laws of physics to fire-building and invented the Texas Fireframe grate. Later dubbed “The Physicist’s Fire” by Time magazine, his invention was featured in news stories on CBS and BBC. His company is now run by his daughter. An advocate for social causes throughout his life, Dr. Cranberg fought for racial equality in Virginia (he also recruited the first black graduate physics student at UVA), for the freedom of Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov and for scientists and inventors not properly credited for their work. He wrote incisively about topics from the ethical problems of scientists to the pseudoscientific basis of Marxism. Dr. Cranberg’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate from Texas was inspired by his desire for science to better inform decisions in and of the law.

Dr. Cranberg’s capacity for indignation at injustice was matched only by his optimistic belief in his ability to fight for change and to make a difference. Dr. Cranberg was a loving, devoted husband, father and grandfather: his last words were “I’m the richest man in the world.” His enthusiasm, generosity, sense of humor and his quest for knowledge, truth, and justice are just a few of the qualities that his family, friends and colleagues will always remember him for. Dr. Cranberg is survived by Charlotte, wife of 58 years; son Alex of Austin, Texas; daughter Nicole and husband Giff Crosby of Cos Cob, Connecticut; and grandchildren Jacob, Hannah and Clare. Other surviving family members include brother, Gilbert Cranberg of Sarasota, Florida and sister, Sylvia Troy of Beverly Shores, Indiana.