As the Cold War waned, physicist Lewis Branscomb feared that America’s economic and scientific superiority was in jeopardy. He believed that the decline in scientific literacy and critical thinking in American education could have disastrous consequences for the country.
Students, he told “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS in 1986, “don’t need to know a lot of facts about science, but they do need to understand how to think the way scientists think, that is, in a problem-solving approach.” problems, given a complex environment within which to make decisions.
Whether in academia, private industry, or government, Dr. Branscomb has done his job to advance science and give it a greater role in public policy. He held out hope for a brighter future through technology, but only if scientists and policymakers could get the public behind the idea.
Dr. Branscomb, who has worked at the nexus of science, technology, politics and business throughout his career, died May 31 at a care facility in Redwood City, California, his son, Harvie, said. . He was 96.
Dr. Branscomb directed the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the federal government’s authorized standards and measurement laboratory, from 1969 to 1972. He later served as chief scientist at IBM, was a professor at Harvard University, wrote hundreds of articles and wrote or contributed to a dozen books.
Dr. Branscomb began working for the government after World War II and nearly six decades later advised the Senate on America’s vulnerabilities after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Meanwhile, he developed basic scientific techniques and perfected measurements at the National Bureau of Standards; he helped IBM turn its huge mainframe computers, which could cost more than a car, into something that could fit in a home office; and he advised various presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, on policy issues, particularly the space program.
Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a former IBM researcher and executive, said in a telephone interview that Dr. Branscomb played an important role at the company when he led the development of technology such as computer memory and storage, networking products and semiconductors. Dr. Branscomb “had a vision to make sure IBM was a world-class research company,” he said.
Dr. Branscomb called for technological growth to be driven by both private industry and the Department of Defense and other government agencies, expressing concern that the end of the space race with the Soviet Union has led to a diminished NASA.
“Where NASA once challenged the industry to go beyond what anyone had done before,” he said in testimony before congress in 1991, “today, the best commercial companies are taking more risks, further expanding their technology, reaching levels of performance and reliability that NASA no longer achieves or even expects.”
It was up to scientists to rekindle society’s enthusiasm for their work, Dr. Branscomb wrote in “Confessions of a Technophile” (1995), arguing that it was up to the scientific community “to recognize the legitimacy of the public’s desire to participate, however superficially”. , in the excitement of the new discovery.”
Lewis McAdory Branscomb was born on August 17, 1926 in Asheville, NC, the son of Harvie and Margaret (Vaughan) Branscomb. His father was dean of the divinity school and director of the library at Duke University and later chancellor of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His mother oversaw the planting of magnolia trees across the Vanderbilt campus and was commemorated with a statue there.
A promising student from a very young age, Lewis left high school early and received an accelerated education at Duke as part of a Navy program to train future scientists.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at age 19, later serving as an officer in the Naval Reserve. He left the Navy in 1946 to enroll at Harvard, where he earned his master’s degree a year later and his doctorate in 1949.
In 1951, Dr. Branscomb became a research physicist studying the structure and spectra of atomic and molecular negative ions for the National Bureau of Standards, a branch of the Department of Commerce, and one of the federal physical science research laboratories. older.
In the early 1960s, he moved from Washington to Boulder, Col., where he helped establish the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, now known as JILA, a collaboration between the Bureau of Standards and the University of Colorado that sought to advance in astrophysical research. He later he served as president of the institute.
He joined President Johnson’s Scientific Advisory Committee in the mid-1960s, when the Apollo program was preparing to land astronauts on the moon in 1969. That year, President Nixon appointed him Director of the Office of Standards, a position he held until he went to IBM in 1972.
He was IBM’s chief scientific officer until 1986, a period in which the company made components for the space shuttle, built computer mainframes and entered the personal computer market against competitors such as Apple and Tandy.
In 1980, Dr. Branscomb became chairman of the National Science Board, which sets policy for the National Science Foundation and advises Congress and the president. He held that position until 1984.
Dr. Branscomb left IBM to become a professor and director of the Program in Public Policy, Technology, and Science at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He also served on the boards of corporations such as Mobil and General Foods.
Books he wrote and edited include “Empowering Technology: Implementing a US Policy” (1993) and “Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism” (2002, with Richard Klausner and others).
Dr. Branscomb married Margaret Ann Wellslawyer and computer communications expert, in the early 1950s. He died in 1997.
In 2005, he married Constance Hammond Mullin, with whom he lived for many years in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego. She survives him.
In addition to his wife and son, his survivors include a daughter, KC Kelley; three stepchildren, Stephen J. Mullin, Keith Mullin, and Laura Thompson; and a granddaughter.
In the preface to “Confessions of a Technophile,” Dr. Branscomb described himself as an “incurable optimist” who had been “driven all his life by a profound conviction that bright prospects for humanity depend on the uses of savvy and creative of technology”.
He added in a footnote that he was not optimistic by logic but “by affirmation.”