Nuclear Physicist, Researcher Ralph Zirkind

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 11, 2007

Ralph Zirkind, 88, a nuclear physicist who was former chief scientist and deputy director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, died of an intracranial hemorrhage Jan. 21 at Suburban Hospital. He lived in Silver Spring for nearly 50 years.

Dr. Zirkind, described by colleagues as "a physicist's physicist," worked for six decades on a variety of projects, particularly electro-optical sensors. He performed studies of the brain, contributed to the Defense Department's Joint Robotics Program, studied nuclear power systems for unmanned air vehicles, provided analysis and forecasting of embedded computer processing compatibilities, worked on ballistic missile defense and conducted studies on nuclear power systems.

He also helped establish a major observatory in Hawaii devoted to infrared astrophysics.

When he was given a lifetime achievement award by the International Society for Optical Engineering in 2002, Dr. Zirkind spoke briefly of the future of technology. He foresaw the expanded use of sensors in the military for robots, ferretlike surveillance devices and communications; in the private sector for automobiles for safety and efficiency reasons; and in medicine for diagnostics and therapy.

"Of course, we will see increase[d] exploitation of brain system signals to interact with machines, namely via free space or digital devices to operate machines; however I also see the reproduction of neuronal circuits, without silicon, matching the brain," he said.

Dr. Zirkind was born in New York and graduated from City College of New York. He received a master's degree from Illinois Institute of Technology in 1946 and received a doctorate from the University of Maryland in 1950. All his degrees were in physics and mathematics.

He was named chief scientist and deputy director of ARPA, now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, in 1966.

During his career, he participated in studies for the National Academy of Sciences, was an adjunct professor of aerospace engineering at the Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Rhode Island, which gave him an honorary doctorate in electrical and computer engineering in 1968.

He had also worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Navy's aeronautics and weapons branch, and as a consultant to defense contractors.

At the time of his death, Dr. Zirkind was a resident consultant at Science and Technology Associates. He published more than 100 scientific papers and received the Navy's Meritorious Service Medal.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Ann Zirkind of Silver Spring; three children, Sheila Knopf of Clifton, N.J., Elaine Gorman of New York and Ed Zirkind of Silver Spring; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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