Bruce Winstein

By Sean Carroll | February 28, 2011 12:18 pm

Bruce Winstein, an experimental physicist at the University of Chicago, passed away this morning. He had been fighting cancer.

Bruce was a fantastic physicist and person. He became well-known as a particle experimentalist, forgoing giant collaborations to work in small groups where he could do something unique. He was the leader of the KTeV experiment at Fermilab, which measured the very subtle “direct” CP violation effect. He won the Panofsky Prize from the American Physical Society for this work.

In an especially impressive move, he then decided that he wanted to switch fields, into cosmology. He took a sabbatical year and went to Princeton, where he basically worked as a grad student in Suzanne Staggs’ lab, learning the trade of cosmic microwave background observations from the ground up. Then he came back to Chicago, where he started and was the founding director of the Center for Cosmological Physics, later the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. Once that was up and running, he moved back into research full-time, becoming a leader of the QUIET collaboration.

Bruce was a great friend, and a valued mentor while I was at Chicago. He was one of the few faculty members to reach out and invite me into his office when I arrived, and was always ready to talk about physics — or music. He was a true audiophile, and connoisseur of jazz in particular. It was Bruce who introduced me to the music of Von Freeman (who just won the prestigious Rosenberger Medal from the University of Chicago).

Bruce died far too young. We’ll miss him greatly.

  • Mark Trodden

    I had no idea Bruce was ill, and am deeply saddened to hear this news. I met Bruce many times when visiting Chicago, and had a great time with him during a conference in China a few years back. He was always open, generous and kind. And of course, a formidable physicist. I most certainly will miss him.

  • Jim Kakalios

    I similarly had no idea. I’ve known Bruce since 1980, back in my graduate student days. This is very sad news. In honor of Bruce – I’ll listen to some Coltrane tonight.

  • Eugene

    What a terrible loss. I have no idea he had been sick. He was making the switch to cosmology as I was a beginning grad student, and he sat in on a few of the cosmology classes I was taking at that time. I always appreciate having him asking all the insightful questions in class. I remember his knowing winks to me several times when Wayne Hu was talking about CMB polarization and Chandrasekhar’s decomposition…

    Man, what a sad day.

  • Ben Lillie

    Wow, this is incredibly sad news. I only met Bruce once, at a dinner just after I arrived in Chicago, but I remember that dinner very clearly, how engaging and entertaining he was, and how clearly he knew and loved his physics.

    My thoughts to all his family and colleagues.

  • David Morrissey

    My condolences to all. Spent my first summer in grad school working for him on a CMB polarization experiment. Even though I ended up going in a different research direction for my thesis, it was a great experience. He had bucketloads of enthusiasm for his research and always wanted to get his hands dirty in every part of the project.

  •!/bravelittlemuon Richard Ruiz

    I never had the opportunity to work with him while at Chicago but much like Simon Swordy neither he nor his work can ever be easily forgotten.

  • Joey Huston

    I’ll always remember the time I gave a seminar at Chicago and Bruce offered to drive me to the airport. Little did I realize what Bruce’s concept of driving entailed. He’ll be missed. My condolences to all of his friends and family.

  • Juan Collar

    I hope to be able to listen to Steve Lacy again one day, and not feel as tremendously sad as tonight.

  • Dan Akerib

    How very sad. I only learned the other day from a visitor that Bruce was ill. He was a wonderful host to me several years back during a short sabbatical at Chicago, and was always ready to lend his support. My sympathy to friends at Chicago, who will most keenly feel the absence of their wonderful colleague.

  • daniel

    Bruce was a unique, brilliant, warm, fantastic human being. I will miss him immeasurably. It was not his time. The loss is beyond words.

  • Robin

    While not unexpected, this is very tragic news. He was indeed way too young. We will all feel his loss deeply.

  • JoAnne

    A few years back he gave one of the best ever series of lectures at the SLAC Summer Institute on building detectors to measure the CMB. It was my first year on the program cmtte and from Bruce, I learned how good lectures were done.

  • Shantanu

    Hi Joanne,
    Do you know why the streaming videos of the SSI lectures no longer work? This was a great pedagogical resource, but unfortunately we can no longer access it

  • David Saul Rosenfeld

    I came to know Bruce through my involvement with Italian cinema. We enjoyed an intense relationship for the last 5 years, writing to one another often on a daily basis. Bruce was the world’s leading authority on the cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni, something that many of those who knew him may not have been aware of. Bruce’s abiding, passionate study of Antonioni extended back to the 1960’s. And yet, what made him so extraordinary a person seems to me to have little to do with physics, jazz, Antonioni . . . As is always the case with all of us, it was something else, profound, silent, partially hidden.

    “He disappeared in the dead of winter:
    The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
    And snow disfigured the public statues;
    The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
    What instruments we have agree
    The day of his death was a dark cold day.”

    I grieve your death, Bruce.

  • macho

    I’m so sorry to hear that we’ve lost Bruce. My office was next to his for several years, and we had some great — and at times wonderfully irreverent — conversations on just about everything.

  • John

    Bruce gave me my start in particle physics. I worked for his group in the summer of 1980 as an NSF REU student. My job was unwrapping, measuring, cleaning, and mounting magnetic shields on lead glass blocks for the electromagnetic calorimeter for his CP violation experiment at Fermilab, which he led with Jim Cronin. I later wrote a computer program to stack them up, evening out the variations in size – they used that program to do the final stack. I’ll always be grateful for that opportunity, and have done my best to pay it forward in my own career.

    Later in 1980, Cronin and Fitch won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of CP violation in 1964. By this point I was hooked, and went on to grad school at Chicago. I did not work in Bruce’s group as a grad student, but on a different experiment with James Pilcher. But Bruce helped create an atmosphere in the whole high energy group at Chicago of just how important the work was, and how everyone needed to continuously hone their experimental skills. He set very high standards for himself and everyone around him. I learned from him how important it is to ask the right questions, and took to heart the example of his extraordinary tenaciousness.

    My favorite Bruce quote:

    “Stick to the physics and everything else will work itself out.”

  • David I. Lewin

    I’m very sad to hear about Bruce’s death. Back during my undergraduate days at Caltech, in the late 1960s, when he was a grad student, Bruce was the driving force behind the Caltech Student Film Society, otherwise known as CinemaTech. As a member of the committee, I learned a tremendous amount about foreign and experimental films from being involved in the once- or twice-monthly showings. Although the cost of tickets was modest, the series was so successful (in good part because of Bruce’s knowledge and energy) that we had to add free showings with refreshments to avoid becoming profitmaking.

    I can still visualize scenes from many of the films we showed–“Rashomon,” Yojimbo,” “The Fireman’s Ball,” and some very strange experimental films by Kenneth Anger (“Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”).

    I only saw him once after I graduated, about 15 years later when he gave a talk to the Carnegie-Mellon physics department (I was handling science and engineering public relations for CMU at that time), and I made a point of saying hello. I’m glad I did.

  • Earl Swallow

    I was stunned to learn of Bruce’s death Monday.

    We have been friends and colleagues since we met as postdocs at Chicago years ago. More recently, Roland Winston and I collaborated with him on Fermilab Experiments 773 and 799 as well as KTeV. His combination of energy, enthusiasm, tenaciousness, and unwavering focus on the physics involved at the deepest level made working with him tremendously rewarding.

    My feeling of loss is simply beyond words.

  • Hiranya Peiris

    Not only was Bruce a tremendous physicist, but one of the most interesting and multifaceted people I’ve ever met. One of my favourite memories of Chicago is of listening to “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” at his house and hearing completely new dimensions to the music on his amazing (and tinkered with) sound-system. I’ll also remember him cycling around and around the LASR corridors on his little folding commuter bike, like a little boy. He was a playful spirit. When I last saw him I thought he was getting better from his illness. This is really sad news and my deepest condolences to his family and friends.

  • Sean Blanton

    Bruce was on my thesis and candidacy exam committees, and I TA’d Electricity and Magnetism for him. I liked him a lot. He was a top notch guy and it meant a lot to me when he said “This is a great thesis!” in my thesis defense. My association with him made me raise my standards of quality, which I continue to hold in my professional life.

    I lost both parents to cancer and I feel for his family and what he went through.

  • Simon DeDeo

    I was thinking about Bruce since I heard the news, and then read Hiranya’s comment about his little folding bicycle and it just reminded me again of how much fun he was to see every day. Charles mentioned how Bruce always used to ask “naieve” questions at talks, and how it gave the rest of us a push to understand things better and not to feel guilty when, after trying as hard as possible, a slide went over your head.

  • Michael Zeller

    I just found out about Bruce’s death, and I am greatly saddened. We were competitors in the field of Kaon physics, but I always found our interactions stimulating and instructive. I had great respect of him as a physicist, but was more impressed watching him change fields and excel again. Too soon we have lost one of the great men of contemporary physics. He will be missed.

  • Charon

    I’m sorry to hear that. Unlike everyone else here, I had a very bad experience with him. I worked with him when I was an undergrad, and he never managed to demonstrate any understanding of the topic I was supposed to be working on, or any mentoring ability. (The only support I got was from a Princeton grad student – thanks, Denis! Oh, and then Bruce made me the CfCP webmaster. Which meant I had to ask the sysadmins to do things like, say, install PHP, on the authority that I was… a second-year undergrad? That didn’t go over well.) I happily left that research position to work the door at a bar (yes, really), until I found a great research position with Don York.

    But I never wished Bruce ill, and now regret that I never got to know his clearly excellent side.

  • UChicagoman

    I will always remember him, he was my first physics professor as a 1st year undergrad at the UofC. (Honor Mechanics,Fall 2002). He got me off to a good start too, A- 😉
    I have a vague memory of the class having a good chuckle after he made some funny quip about string theory being like trying to prove God exists, or something along those lines.

    Huge loss for the community. Too young indeed.

  • Michael Weiss

    How very sad. Bruce was a wonderful colleague even outside of Physics. When I was a professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago, Bruce joyously “conspired” with my wife Carol to arrange a family 40th birthday party at FermiLabs. The evening coincided with a lecture on evolution and baseball statistics by Stephen Jay Gould (which reflected his discussions with Ed Purcell). Bruce’s passion for science enlivened a tour of the KevT experiment (including the salt crystals from mines beneath Lake Erie) for non-physicists.

  • Excuse me?

    Charon, if you exhibited the same discretion in your work under Bruce as in your posting here, I have an entirely different interpretation of your personal history.

  • Elizabeth

    I was a grad student on KTeV. Bruce was already transitioning to cosmology when I arrived at Chicago, so I didn’t get to work with him very much, but when we talked about KTeV it was amazing how well he remembered all the details and would get to the heart of the problem so quickly. Talking to him was always good for a morale boost too, because he would get so excited and that enthusiasm was contagious. He often stopped by the student office to chat about sports, music, or running. The last time I saw him was about a month ago at his retirement celebration; while he was obviously ill, he was warm, gracious, engaged, and enthusiastic just as he always had been. He was the driving force behind the research that I have so loved and he was an example of life well-lived. He was a larger-than-life figure in my life and it is hard to comprehend that he is gone. My thoughts are with his friends and family.

  • Dragan Huterer

    It is always sad to lose someone so talented and unique.

    Bruce taught an experimental physics class I took when I was a grad student at Chicago; at the time he was still a particle physicist. About 6-7 years later, he was a cosmologist and director of KICP while I was a postdoctoral fellow there. Most recently, he visited to Michigan to give a colloquium, and over dinner with a few of us, he recalled the golden years of physics at Chicago by recounting fascinating anecdotes involving Fermi, Telegdi, Garvin, Chandrasekhar, and others.

    One thing that was already briefly mentioned was Bruce’s passionate love for the cinema. He was a world-class expert on the Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, and, I believe, taught an undergraduate *course* on Antonioni on more than one occasion at the University of Chicago only a few years ago.

    Really sad day.

  • morris

    I remember Bruce as a boy when we went to grade school in West L. A. He grew up in a small, older home, near Brentwood Elementary School. He live a few blocks away from me, and I would visit with him to trade coins and talk baseball. He also enjoyed bowling and became rather good at it.

    In High School, Bruce was entered into an advanced level of study, along with some of my smarter friends. Bruce had a sense of humor and never minded when his friends would tease him for studying too much. He was capable of doing the same to you. I remember that he sought out Stan Laurel and was granted an interview. His pals were quite impressed. I saw him once or twice when he wast at UCLA and knew he was interested in becoming a physicist. I am glad that he was successful at it. I wondered if he was going to go to our 50th High School reunion this summer. He was the one of the people that I, and another friend, Glenn Lyons, wanted to see.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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