Physicist William Shurcliff; Advocated for Public Interest

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

William A. Shurcliff, 97, a physicist who became a key crusader against the supersonic jet and an advocate for solar-energy research, died June 20 at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He had pneumonia.

Born into a science-savvy and activist family, Dr. Shurcliff distinguished himself in government, private industry and academia.

He co-edited an official history of the Manhattan Project during World War II and also documented the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll in 1946. He spent many years as a senior researcher at the Cambridge Electron Accelerator, a high-energy physics laboratory run by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1967, while at the Cambridge lab, he began Citizens League Against the Sonic Boom, a scientific clearinghouse that opposed the U.S. government's development of supersonic transit.

Allied with Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) and environmentalists such as David Brower, he faced a strong lobby of military and aerospace interests that had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in studying the prospects of supersonic transit flights that would travel at up to 1,800 mph.

With impeccable credibility, a gentle disposition and a succinct way with words, Dr. Shurcliff challenged in his many writings and presentations the validity of government and scientific reports that seemed to play down the noise nuisance and dollar damage caused by the supersonic craft.

He highlighted the "bang zone" of the jets -- the shock waves that would roll out like a carpet for up to 50 miles for the entire path of the plane's travel. He said the sonic boom of 150 planes in flight could result in $1 million in broken windows and cracked plaster on the ground. Many people would be startled night and day by the "sonic pollution," he said.

He was credited with helping to end the development of American supersonic jets and to limit supersonic flights from Europe to New York and Washington. Eventually, the planes became economically unviable, and commercial flights were suspended in recent years.

William Asahel Shurcliff was born March 27, 1909, in Boston. His father was a landscape architect, and his mother was a founder of a state civil liberties group that, among other activities, protested the execution of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

As a young man, Dr. Shurcliff followed his parents' interest in carpentry and built a series of kayaks. In a nod to his growing interest in science, he named the boats after atomic particles. His double kayak was the Deuteron.

He was a 1930 graduate of Harvard, from which he also received a doctorate in physics in 1934. He then spent several years with a division of American Cyanamid, where he helped create the original formula for military camouflage paint.

Dr. Shurcliff came to Washington during World War II and worked primarily for the Office of Scientific Research and Development, a research funding organization that played a role in the Allied development of the atomic bomb.

He became a liaison between that office and the Pentagon, scrutinizing hundreds of technical intelligence reports from military departments. He worked with the U.S. patent office to make sure that patents connected to the Manhattan Project were kept secret until the war ended.

He also co-edited "Atomic Energy for Military Purposes," the official history of the atomic project. It was better known as the "Smyth Report," named for its author, Princeton University physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth.

Like Smyth, Dr. Shurcliff was apprehensive about the Cold War buildup of atomic weapons for military use. He used his memberships in the Council for a Livable World and the Federation of Atomic Scientists to underscore his concerns.

In 1948, he joined Polaroid Corp., started by Harvard classmate Edwin Land. During the next 12 years, he worked extensively in optics, held more than 20 patents and refined the automatic-focus slide projector.

After retiring from the Cambridge Electron Accelerator in 1973 -- around the time of the Arab oil embargo -- he taught himself about solar energy and ways to create insulating window shades and aluminum foil reflectors.

Reading about other solar designers was "infuriating," he told the New York Times. "Half the information was missing, and systems were vaguely described as 'ingenious' without explaining why they were ingenious or how well they worked. Sense had to be made of it."

He wrote several well-received practical books on solar energy and more than 100 articles. Crispness, simplicity and precision were hallmarks of his writing style as well as his method of teaching. He once explained the special and general theories of relativity on the back of an envelope -- and as a challenge, limited himself to single-syllable words.

In 1941, he married Joan Hopkinson, the daughter of portrait painter Charles Hopkinson. She survives and lives in Cambridge. Other survivors include two sons, Arthur Shurcliff of Cambridge and Charles Shurcliff of Ipswich, Mass.; a sister; and two granddaughters.

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