Dakota Datebook

Daniel Posin, Physicist – pt 1

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

In 1963, writer Edward Barry wrote for the Chicago Tribune Magazine: “Imagine a profoundly learned man who likes loud sports clothes, a scientist who talks slang like a fight promoter, a holder of a doctor’s degree who looks like an actor, and a university professor who would be quite capable of carving out a career as a comic.”
The man Mr. Barry was describing was Daniel Q. Posin, who was born in Russian Turkestan August 13, 1909. His father, a janitor, died young of tuberculosis, and when the Russian Revolution began, 6-year old Posin fled and his mother fled to Mongolia. Three years later, they were able to book passage to the United States, traveling in bottom of a ship with the cattle.
Nine-year old Daniel spoke no English when he arrived in San Francisco, but he learned very quickly. Despite working hard as a newspaper boy and in restaurants, he was soon excelling in school. With scholarships, he was able to attend the University of California Berkeley, where he earned a PhD in physics in 1935 – he was jut 24 years old. That year, Posin also charmed Frances “Patsy” Schweitzer away from a friend and eloped with her to Las Vegas. She was to be his wife for the next 68 years.
Posin taught at Berkeley for the next two years. Perhaps due to his suffering as a youth, Posin was exceptionally kind hearted. He was also lively, colorful and entertaining. His loud brash suits, Groucho Marks mustache and his enthusiasm in the classroom combined to make him an extraordinarily gifted professor. In describing how the universe worked, he might dance, do a handstand, or use kittens to demonstrate planets orbiting a star. As his daughter Kathryn once said, “The universe danced in his mind.”
When given a job opportunity in Central America, he taught himself Spanish in two weeks and moved to Panama, where he taught and wrote textbooks in Spanish for the next five years. From there, he did a short stint at Montana State University.
In 1943, at the age of 34, Posin became president of the National Academy of Sciences and moved to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to conduct research on radar and radioactivity.
He also met and became friends with Albert Einstein. Both men were deeply shaken when the atomic bomb was used in World War II.
Einstein, who recognized Posin’s gift for explaining physics to ordinary people, urged him to use his talents to teach peace to the world. Dr. Posin gave more than 3,000 lectures throughout the U.S. and England. For this work, he would be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize six times.
You might be wondering what all this has to do with North Dakota. Actually, the next position Posin accepted was at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU) where he was chair of the physics department for eleven years. More on that tomorrow in part 2 of our story.
By Merry Helm
Sources: Who’s Who In America. Volume 2: 1976-77 Edition.
Daniel Q. Posin, Physicist, Won Emmys, 93. Newsgroups: alt.obituaries. 26 May 2003. <http://www.honors.umd.edu/HONR269J/archive/DanPosin2.html>
Warner Rotzall, Brenda. Daniel Posin, 93; Explained Space to Masses. Chicago Sun-Times. 28 May 2003.

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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