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1926 Dr. 2021

Dr. James Anderson

April 16, 1926 — December 1, 2021


James L. Anderson (1926-2021)

James Leroy Anderson, a theoretical physicist whose research helped to validate some of Albert Einstein’s most important theories of the universe, passed away in Falmouth, Massachusetts on December 1, 2021. He was 95 years old. He died in his sleep from pneumonia, a complication of Parkinson’s disease. He leaves his wife of more than 71 years, Helene Masslo Anderson; two children, David J. Anderson and Judith L. Masslo Anderson Armstrong; their spouses, Debra M. Anderson and John E.H. Armstrong; and extended family.

Dr. Anderson was born in Chicago on April 16, 1926. Née Robert E. Jacobson, he was adopted as a young child. He attended the University of Chicago, then received his Ph.D. in physics from Syracuse University. There he met Helene Masslo, a graduate student and later professor of Latin American literature. They married in 1950 and settled in New Jersey, where Dr. Anderson was a Professor of Physics at Stevens Institute of Technology until he retired. The family spent school years in Teaneck, New Jersey and summers in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where Dr. Anderson was affiliated with the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics program of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Born with a talent for mathematics and abstract thinking, Dr. Anderson was fascinated with Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and its relationship to quantum mechanics. He studied astrophysics, cosmology, fluid dynamics, gravitation, and plasma physics. Over the course of his education and career, he interacted with some of the great physicists of his time, including Peter Bergmann (his Ph.D. advisor, who worked with Einstein), as well as Nobel laureates Enrico Fermi (with whom he studied in Chicago), Paul Dirac, Kip Thorne, and Einstein, his intellectual idol.

Dr. Anderson was highly respected for his scientific contributions. In 1967 he published a textbook, Principles of Relativity Physics , considered a classic in its field. As one reviewer wrote: “This is a beautiful and uncommon book…it has an unconventional depth to it, reflecting an apparent love for open-minded physics.” Beautiful, uncommon, with unconventional depth, and open-minded – these words describe the man as well as his work.

Dr. Anderson loomed large in the lives of those who loved and admired him. His exuberance and humor delighted others; his brilliant mind awed them. He was full of curiosity about diverse subjects, ranging from science to history and politics. He was an adventurer – he rafted down the Grand Canyon at the age of 75 – and traveled widely with his wife, venturing as far as Africa, Australia, the Galapagos Islands, and India. He was a technophile, who built his own computers. He was intrigued by rare automobiles – he owned Citroëns and visited an antique car exhibit on the last excursion of his life. He loved the natural world and animals – he once adopted (briefly) a monkey in Mexico City, which he and Helene named Pansy. He relished gourmet food and wine. He played the clarinet and bassoon. He adored classical music, especially Wagnerian opera, which he sang with abandon. He was a trivia master and liked to solve the New York Times crossword puzzle in his head. His joie de vivre never subsided, even when he was challenged with disabilities. He lived a full and vibrant life, rich with experience, knowledge, and love. Above all, he loved Helene. They were inseparable until the day of his death.

Dr. Anderson pursued his own path. He valued independent thinking and rationality. He never shied from sharing his views. He sought to understand the fundamental principles of reality, a quest carried on by his children in their own ways. He leaves a legacy of original thought, vitality, love, and deep devotion to family. He will be deeply missed.

A memorial for Dr. Anderson will be held in Woods Hole in the summer of 2022. His remains will be buried in the Woods Hole Village Cemetery. He wanted these words on his gravestone, from his favorite poem, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam :

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou

Beside me singing in the wilderness –

And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

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