March 22, 2012

Obituary: Bernard L. Cohen

Professor emeritus of physics Bernard L. Cohen died March 17, 2012.

He was 87. A Pittsburgh native, Cohen served as an engineering officer in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific theatre during World War II.

After his service, Cohen completed his undergraduate studies in 1944 at then-Case Institute of Technology. He earned a master’s degree in 1947 from Pitt and a PhD from then-Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1950. Cohen’s dissertation was titled “Experimental Studies of High Energy Nuclear Reactions.”

He worked as a group leader for cyclotron research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory from 1950 until 1958, when he joined the Pitt faculty as an associate professor of physics and chemistry. He was granted tenure in 1959 and was named professor in 1961. He also held adjunct professor appointments at Pitt in chemical and petroleum engineering, radiation health and environmental and occupational health.

He served as the director of the University’s Scaife Nuclear Laboratory, 1965-78.

Cohen retired from Pitt in 1994 as professor emeritus of physics.

In addition to his specialty in nuclear physics, Cohen’s research areas included health effects of radiation; societal risks and risk aversion; radon levels in homes, and energy and the environment.

He served on a number of national energy committees, panels and advisory boards. He also supervised the measuring of radon levels in 350,000 homes.

Author of six books, including the textbook “Concepts of Nuclear Physics,” and more than 300 journal articles, Cohen lectured widely in the United States and internationally and made more than 50 television appearances, including interviews with Barbara Walters, William F. Buckley, Charlie Rose and Geraldo Rivera.

In a 1989 article titled “The Myth of Plutonium Toxicity,” Cohen famously challenged activist Ralph Nader: “I offered to eat as much plutonium as he would eat of caffeine, which my paper shows is comparably dangerous, or given reasonable TV coverage, to  personally  inhale  1,000  times  as much plutonium as he says would be fatal.”

Nader did not take up the challenge.

In a 2005 interview with RSO (Radiation Safety Officer) Magazine, Cohen recommended to the scientific community: “Don’t be enslaved to the linear-no threshold theory of radiation-induced cancer; it is almost certainly not valid and over-estimates the risks from low-level radiation. … As a nation, we are wasting tens of billions of dollars cleaning up little bits of radiation. The worst thing is that we are largely giving up on nuclear energy because of this.”

In the same interview, Cohen listed his hobbies as ballroom dancing and golf; his favorite food as chocolate and his pet peeve as “the media.”

Among several awards, Cohen received the American Physical Society Tom Bonner Prize for Nuclear Physics in 1981, the American Nuclear Society Public Information Award in 1985 and the Health Physics Society Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award in 1992.

He was elected to  membership in the National Academy of Engineering in 2003.

Cohen is survived by his children, Donald, Judith, Fred and Ernie Cohen; 10 grandchildren; two great-grandchildren, and his partner, Ann Ungar.

Memorial contributions may be made to a charity of the donor’s choice.

—Peter Hart