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Memento Maury: A Tribute to Maury Shapiro

Memento Maury: A Tribute to Maury Shapiro

Maurice Shapiro

Maurice M. Shapiro, a Manhattan Project veteran who had a long and distinguished career in the field of cosmic rays and neutrino astrophysics, died on February 27, 2008. The Atomic Heritage Foundation had the pleasure of his speaking on April 27, 2001 in Washington, DC on “Remembering the Manhattan Project” and on June 26, 2004 in Los Alamos to commemorate the centennial of J. Robert Oppenheimer.  His remarks are included in a book on the symposium edited by Cynthia C. Kelly and published by the World Scientific.

Maury was a lively, energetic and delightful person.  While some in the audience might not follow all of the science of cosmic rays, he charmed them all. Maurice Shapiro studied physics at the University of Chicago and worked at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project as group leader in the Ordnance Division. In 1946, he served a Chair of the Association of Los Alamos Scientists and lobbied for the international control of atomic energy after the war.  He also worked with Admiral Rickover on nuclear science at Oak Ridge after the war and designed a power reactor.

In 1949, he founded a cosmic-ray laboratory at the naval Research Laboratory to determine the source composition and of the Galactic cosmic rays. In 1977, Shapiro founded the International School of Cosmic-ray Astrophysics in Erice, Italy, where he continued to serve as director. He was an intelligent and creative scientist who was also concerned about world peace and human affairs.Endowed with his great organizational skills and charm, Maury leaves an indelible imprint on science and fond memories for all who knew him.

By Joel N. Shapiro, Maury's son

Friday night.  Where Maury Shapiro came from, Friday Night Lights had nothing to do with high school football.  As he himself might have said, but for the grace of God, Friday Night would never have meant anything to him other than Erev Shabbos” – Sabbath Eve.  Rather improbably, Friday night later came to mean concerts at the Library of Congress and meetings of the Philosophical Society in this very building.  Shabbos moved over a little to make room for worldly pursuits that were sacred to Dad in their own way. Who could have foreseen that blond, curly-locked Moishe Mendel Werner, born in Jerusalem in the midst of World War I, would become a citizen of the United States, a citizen of the world, a citizen of the cosmos – even a member of the Cosmos Club?  His mother and father – married at 19, parents at 20 – could hardly have expected what became of them; still less what became of their son.  Yaakov Shimon – for whom I was named in Hebrew, and Eli after me – was a rabbinical scholar, an amateur linguist, a young man of “letters”.  In the waning days of the War, seized by the Turkish authorities on suspicion of espionage, he was imprisoned in Damascus.  At war’s end, he was sent home, only to die from influenza on the way and be buried in Tiberias, on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  Miriam Rivka, beautiful and prayer-book literate, remarried and emigrated to Chicago, where she raised a family of six children.  She and her husband, the revered Rabbi Osher Shapiro, managed to speak mostly Yiddish all their lives, and to preserve in a strange land the traditional Jewish practices in which they themselves had been raised.

But what of Moishe Mendel?  He imagined a different future for himself and brought it about by sheer force of will.  Taught himself to speak the King’s English, and German and French for good measure.  Taught himself to swim and ice skate, to do cosmic ray research and, sadly, prepare ballistics tables.  The Manhattan Project lasted a few years; the Maury Project, a lifetime.  Each of us has heard and witnessed parts of the story.  But what, as Maury might have said, is the “punchline”?  It is – strange to tell – that this pious kid from Jerusalem became truly a man of the Enlightenment: fiercely reasonable, dedicated to science, an incorrigible optimist, a passionate believer in the rights of man.  He was as much at home in Moscow and Ahmenabad, in Geneva and Bonn, as he was in Washington.  Like Mendelssohn, to whose music he loved to listen, he put his Jewishness in the service of other muses.  Perhaps it’s not so far, after all, from Fingle’s Cave to the Cave of the Machpela, where the Biblical Yaakov is buried.

Oh, the stories Dad could tell!  Stories about himself and his family, his boyhood sidekicks, his colleagues close by and all over the world.  And jokes, of course.  Dad called them “stories”, as well, because for him life was a cornucopia of stories.  “Stop me if you’ve heard this before,” he would say.  We’d always heard it before, and we never stopped him.  He enjoyed the telling; so did we.  A good story deserves to be told again and again.
There came a time when he talked about writing his memoirs.  We encouraged, even begged, him.  His memoirs would have been not only the sum of a fascinating life, but a chronicle of physics and physicists in his time.  He seemed to know everyone, and to know everything about everyone.  He seemed to remember it all, and never tire of telling it.  This extraordinary remembering and telling and re-telling, we realize now, was an expression of love for us – his friends, his colleagues, his family.  It was his inimitable way of sharing and bonding – the conversational counterpart of his signature smile, his twinkle, the warm hello with which he always greeted each of us.  He didn’t have an easy life.  Far from it.  But he knew how to savor it and, most of all, the people – the many, many people – to whom he chose to be connected, and to remain connected.
Speaking of stories, stop me if you’ve heard this.  Responding to a newspaper ad for an experienced guide to lead an East African safari, Shmendel came to the door of the redoubtable Baron Rothschild.  “Yes, my good man?” the Baron said.  “I’m here to answer your advertisement,” replied Shmendel.  “Well, then,” said the Baron, “how many safaris have you led?”  “None,” declared Shmendel.  “How many big-game animals have you bagged?” “None,” said Shmendel.  “How many times have you visited East Africa?”  “Never,” confessed Shmendel.  “Then how do you have the audacity to answer my advertisement?”  “I mean no offense, Monsieur le Baron.  I just came to tell you that if you’re looking for an experienced guide to lead your safari in East Africa, on me you shouldn’t depend.”
Why did this story appeal so much to Maury?  Perhaps because, if you were looking for a rabbi, on him you shouldn’t depend.  If you were looking for someone to spend more time on administration than on research, on him you shouldn’t depend.  If you were looking for someone to birth a bomb and ignore the consequences, on him you shouldn’t depend.  If you were looking for someone to just do his work and shut up, on him you shouldn’t depend.  In every other way, though, we all depended on Maury.  And he delivered – modestly, generously, honestly, bravely.  

Like his contemporary, Frank Sinatra – yes, Sinatra – he did it his way.   With a beret instead of a fedora, a bit of an eye for the ladies, a style at once old-fashioned and up-to-date.  Crooning cantorial gems instead of pop songs; turning a scientific phrase like a Tin Pan Alley wordsmith.  A yeshiva boy from the West Side of Chicago; an elder statesman of science on the west coast of Sicily.  An American classic – from here to modernity.  
Maury didn’t write his memoirs because he didn’t need to.  He had told them – over and over.  He didn’t need to write his autobiography.  He had lived it – completely, authentically.  And that brings us back to Yaakov Shimon, who did not have the chance to live out his life, to choose his life.  In a sense, Dad lived that life for him.  We cannot know whether it’s the life Yaakov Shimon would have chosen for himself.  He didn’t survive to see what a fine – some might say, remarkable – human being his son became.  But we can be sure of this.  He would have been very proud.  As are we all.

Joel Shapiro
Washington, D.C.
March 21, 2008