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Professor of astrophysical sciences Harold P. Furth dies

Princeton University professor emeritus Harold P. Furth, a pioneer in the U.S. fusion program and the originator of the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR) project, died Thursday morning, Feb. 21, in Philadelphia at the age of 72. The cause of death was heart failure.

Harold was a giant of fusion science, a person of untiring energy and boundless optimism. He buoyed all of us. Harold led the U.S. fusion program to tremendous growth in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, many of the scientific accomplishments even in the 1990s are the result of his leadership. We will all miss him, said Rob Goldston, director of the Princeton Universitys Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Furth made a career of research on controlled fusion, making countless contributions to the science of fusion plasmas (a hot, ionized gas) and the fundamentals of plasma physics. He provided scientific and managerial leadership to the world fusion program throughout his career.

In the 1960s, Furth and others developed a critically important theoretical description of instabilities arising due to resistance in a plasma. Later, he and two others described a method for using energized ion beams to heat a plasma in such a way as to enhance fusion reactions. This breakthrough was critical to the design of TFTR and enabled the production of world-record levels of fusion power and the study of the fusion power reactions. Furth also was instrumental in research on the physics of ignited, or self-sustained, plasmas.

In the early 1970s, he conceived the TFTR project, the most advanced and highest performance fusion device ever constructed in the United States. Furth served as director of PPPL from 1981 to 1990, during which time TFTR was launched. The machine operated for 14 years, producing world record-setting and major scientific results before closing down in 1997.

In 1999, Furth said, It is very good to imagine things, but actually to do things and get results that make scientific sense is a solemn and inspiring path.

A native of Vienna, Furth came to the U.S. in 1941. He received a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University in 1960 and worked on controlled magnetic fusion research at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) in California prior to joining PPPL in 1967 and being appointed professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. He co-headed the Experimental Division at the Laboratory from 1967 to 1978, when he was appointed associate director and head of the research department at PPPL. He became program director in 1980 and director of the Laboratory in 1981.

A fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Furth served on the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Research Councils Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Resources. He received the E.O. Lawrence Memorial Award from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1974, the James Clerk Maxwell Prize in Plasma Physics from the American Physical Society in 1983, and the Delmer S. Fahrney Medal from the Committee on Science and The Arts of The Franklin Institute in 1992.

He held more than 20 patents, primarily in the areas of controlled magnetic fusion technology and metal forming with pulsed magnetic fields, and had published more than 200 technical papers. In addition, Furth had served on committees and panels for the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, and other scientific and technical organizations, as well as on various advisory committees for such organizations as the Max Planck Gesellschaft.

In 1999, Furth became professor emeritus of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. He was active in research at PPPL until shortly before his death. He is survived by his wife, Christiane A. Ludescher, of Princeton; son, John Furth, of New York City; and sister, Inge Steer, of Connecticut.

A private service will be held for family members only. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Harold P. Furth's name to:

  • Princeton Senior Resource Center Spruce Circle Princeton, New Jersey 08540
  • Womanspace 1212 Stuyvesant Avenue Trenton, New Jersey 08618
  • Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601

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