Widgets Magazine

Professor emeritus of theoretical physics Sidney Drell dies at 90

Sidney Drell, a respected physicist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, died Wednesday at the age of 90 in his home in Palo Alto.

Drell was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at SLAC and national security expert, as well as father of three children including incoming provost Persis Drell.

“An accomplished physicist, his contributions to improve national and international security made our world a better place,” said Tom Gilligan, the director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford,in a statement to Stanford News. “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.”

Drell spent more than half his life dedicated to the issue of national security, specifically the area of nuclear nonproliferation. He advised Congress, the military and intelligence agencies from his position on several panels, including the JASON advisory group and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

In 1966, Drell assisted in the development of the McNamara Line, a physical barrier that was proposed as an alternative defense to bombing North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Two decades later, Drell became one of the first co-directors of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, now known as the Center for International Security and Cooperation. He went on to found a program alongside former Secretary of State George P. Shultz at the Hoover Institution that sought to outline a practical plan to eliminate nuclear weapons in 2006.

Beyond his work as a national security advisor, Drell contributed greatly to the field of theoretical physics.

He began his career in 1950 as an instructor of physics at Stanford. He took a position as a researcher and assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology two years later, only to return to Stanford as a physics professor in 1956. His research was focused on quantum electrodynamics and quantum chromodynamics.

He served as the deputy director for SLAC from 1969-1998, where he formulated the Drell-Yan Process with research associate Tung-Mow Yan. The process went on to play an instrumental role in the field of particle physics.

In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Drell with the National Medal of Science for, according to the National Science & Technology Medals Foundation, “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.” Drell was also one of 10 scientists honored as “founders of national reconnaissance as a space discipline” by the US National Reconnaissance Office.

In addition to his academic accomplishments, Drell was a violinist who played chamber music throughout his life.

Drell is survived by his wife, Harriet, and his children, Daniel, Persis and Joanna.


Contact Emma Fiander at efiander ‘at’ stanford.edu.