Robert J. Rubin, 81; Scientist Whose Work Combined Disciplines

Robert J. Rubin was a devoted tennis player throughout his life.
Robert J. Rubin was a devoted tennis player throughout his life. (Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Robert Joshua Rubin, 81, a mathematician and physicist who worked for 30 years at the old National Bureau of Standards and 10 more years at the National Institutes of Health, died of multiple myeloma Jan. 18 at his home in the District.

Dr. Rubin devised elegant mathematical modes for complex physical systems and then followed the evolution of those systems over time. His work crossed traditional disciplines of physics, chemistry and math. When NIH scientists expressed interest in what he was doing, Dr. Rubin taught himself biology and joined NIH. He continued to work until his last months.

He was a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a past president of the Philosophical Society of Washington.

He was also a tennis player who won tournaments into his seventies. He would leave the house each morning at 5:30 to get in a game and even played with an oxygen tank on his back in 2003.

His family noted that Dr. Rubin arranged his life so his wife, Vera C. Rubin, an astronomer who won the National Medal of Science in 1993, could travel for research and to use telescopes in the United States and Chile. Their four children, educated in the District's public schools, all became scientists: David Rubin is a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey at Santa Cruz, Calif.; Judy Young is an astronomer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; Karl Rubin is a mathematician at the University of California at Irvine; and Allan Rubin is a geologist at Princeton University.

Dr. Rubin did his best to influence his children, bringing math books from the library and returning them, unread, until Karl began reading them. His daughter recalled walking to Alice Deal Junior High School in the 1960s with her father. "Daddy would carry on a running discussion with me of rational and irrational numbers, a rather unusual subject for a father to discuss with his teenage daughter," she said.

Born in New York to an artist and a stenographer, Dr. Rubin became a serious tennis player while still in elementary school. He enrolled at Johns Hopkins University but within a year enlisted in the Navy during World War II. Sent by the Navy to study chemical engineering at Cornell University, he completed his degree there after the war ended. He also played on Cornell's tennis team.

He studied physics under Nobel Prize winners Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe, theoretical astrophysicist Philip Morrison and probability theorist Marc Kac. He completed his doctorate in chemistry under Nobel Prize winner Peter Debye in 1951.

Dr. Rubin then took a senior staff position at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Washington. In 1955, he became a visiting assistant professor of physical chemistry at the University of Illinois. He and his family returned to Washington in 1957, and he joined the National Bureau of Standards as a physicist. He worked in the divisions of temperature physics and polymers and was an institute scientist in the Institute of Materials Research. He also was on the tennis team at the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

During the 1960s, his family spent summers in the West, where Dr. Rubin worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and at the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder, Colo.

On a Cold War-era trip to the Soviet Union, he slipped away from his escorts to meet clandestinely with refuseniks so he could exchange tapes and deliver birth control pills.

Dr. Rubin, a warm and witty man, enjoyed classical music, dark chocolate and spicy food. He loved nature, traveling, hiking and camping, the Tetons, the New York Times crossword puzzles and mathematical puzzles.

He was a member of the American Chemical Society, the Biophysics Society, the American Mathematical Society and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

In addition to his wife and children, survivors include a brother and five grandchildren.

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