Start a Profile  Forgot Password
Close this search box.

William Nierenberg, Class of 1935

PROFESSOR WILLIAM NIERENBERG, who has died in California aged 81 (February 13, 1919 – September 10, 2000), was a physicist, an expert on global warming and for more than 20 years director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, near San Diego; earlier, he had helped to develop the atomic bomb and had served as a scientific adviser to Nato and the National Security Agency.
In recent years, Nierenberg was best known for his vocal opposition to the growing scientific consensus that the “greenhouse effect” is caused by carbon dioxide and other gases. Together with others at the George C Marshall Institute in Washington, he argued that the increase in the earth’s temperature had mostly occurred before 1940, and thus before the largest rise in emissions of carbon dioxide and pollutants by industry and motor cars.

Nierenberg suggested that greater energy output by the sun or variations in global weather patterns might be likelier candidates for the cause of the warming, and believed that, while governments should take steps to reduce emissions (especially those of CFCs), any long-term changes in the environment would be slow to appear, allowing relaxed manouevre by the developed nations. It was a view that found much favour at the White House under President Bush.

Nierenberg’s theories on the atmosphere had in part been formed by his work on the world’s oceans. In 1965, he had been appointed head of the Scripps Institution, part of the University of California based at La Jolla, on the shores of the Pacific.

He arrived there at a time of growing public interest in oceanography, brought about largely by the work of Jacques Cousteau. Nierenberg turned the Scripps into a modern and internationally known research institute, presiding over a five-fold increase in its budget.

He was among the first to recognise the potential of satellites and computers for processing data and mapping the oceans, and established the first remote sensing satellite facility at an oceanographic centre.

Among the other projects he supervised were a study of the interaction between the waters of the North Pacific and the atmosphere, leading to a better understanding of phenomena such as El Niño.

Perhaps his most successful achievement, however, was the Deep Sea Drilling scheme to extract ore and sediment from the upper crust and the mantle of the earth. Helped by the work of British scientists at Southampton, in time this had far-reaching effects on the general theory of plate tectonics.

William Aaron Nierenberg, the son of impoverished Polish Jews, was born in New York on February 13 1919. He was educated at Townsend Harris High School and then spent a year on a scholarship at the University of Paris before completing his degree in Physics at the City College of New York in 1939. While working for his MA, he taught at the City College, and then in 1942 was seconded to the Manhattan Project.

Nierenberg had already begun to specialise in magnetic resonance, a method of measuring the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei and aligning their internal momentum. His work on this led him to become a section leader of the team producing the first atomic bomb.

After the war, Nierenberg became a tutor at Columbia University, where he came under the influence of Isidor Rabi, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who had first developed the techniques of magnetic resonance. In 1948, Nierenberg went as an assistant professor to the University of Michigan, moving on to the University of California at Berkeley in 1950.

It was here that Nierenberg forged his reputation as a theoretical physicist. He set up the Atom Beam Laboratory and the Atomic Beam Research Group at Berkeley, and over the course of 15 years published more than 100 books and papers on experimental topics within nuclear physics, among them magnetic resonance and spin – the internal momentum of atoms, especially hydrogen protons.

His interest in oceanography was stimulated in 1953, when for a year he worked at Columbia’s Hudson Laboratories on underwater sound. This led him in 1958 to be appointed to the President’s Advisory Panel on Anti-Submarine Warfare, which came under the National Security Agency. From 1960 to 1962 he was Secretary-General for Scientific Affairs at Nato in Paris.

When he returned from Nato, Nierenberg joined Jason, a body which tries to effect closer ties between the academic and defence communities and advises the Department of Defense on scientific matters. Nierenberg was chairman of the panel in the 1980s; its name was not an acronym, but that of the first chairman’s dog.

Nierenberg served on numerous other committees, among them Nasa’s Space Advisory Council, of which he was chairman from 1978 to 1982, and the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council.

In 1970, he was appointed chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere and the following year was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He was also vice-chancellor of marine sciences at the University of California. He retired from the Scripps in 1986.

Bill Nierenberg was a tall, powerful man who was loyal to friends and colleagues, but never left anyone in doubt as to where he stood on an issue. Away from science, he enjoyed flying light aircraft and playing the ukelele.

He married, in 1941, Edith Meyerson. They had a son and a daughter.