University of Chicago physicist, music fan

By Imran Vittachi
Tribune staff reporter

May 2, 2004

As he did throughout much of his life, Dr. Arthur Roberts played air piano the day he died, his fingers dancing over an imaginary keyboard.

He was a nuclear physicist who fused science with his love of music.

Dr. Roberts, 91, whose work in physics took him to the University of Chicago physics department and the University of Chicago-run Argonne National and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratories, died of Alzheimer's disease Thursday, April 22, at his home in Honolulu. Dr. Roberts moved to Hawaii in the late 1970s.

"He was not a tech nerd, as most of us are," said John Learned, a former colleague and a physics professor at the University of Hawaii. "He was interested in art and poetry and music. He was a gentleman of the old school."

Dr. Roberts was born July 6, 1912, in the Bronx, the son of an Austrian immigrant who was a labor movement organizer. In 1933, he graduated from New York's Manhattan School of Music with a piano diploma. That same year, he earned his master's degree in physics from Columbia University. As he commuted by subway to classes, he played air piano, said his daughter Judith R. Neale. The time then came for Dr. Roberts to make up his mind on a career.

"Was I going to be a musician or a physicist?" Dr. Roberts mused in a 1993 interview with Computer Music Journal. "I was a moderately good pianist, but not really good enough for the concert stage ... One of the strongest arguments for going into physics was that I could still keep up with music as a physicist, but I couldn't keep up with physics as a musician."

Dr. Roberts lived up to his words. While becoming a respected physicist over the years, he kept at his music, composing songs with scientific themes. Some of his songs and lyrics have been posted on the Internet in his honor. Titles include "The Cyclotronist's Nightmare (or Eighty Millicuries by Half-Past Nine)" and "Take Away Your Billion Dollars."

During their days in the Chicago area in the 1960s and '70s, Dr. Roberts and his wife, Janice, were key in the founding of the Music Theater of Hyde Park, said his daughter.

She recalled how her parents would take her to Long Island clambakes with eminent scientists and Nobel laureates who worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. They would jam together with their instruments, she said.

Dr. Roberts developed radar technology with a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists. He helped put the technology to use during World War II by flying to Britain when that country was fending off constant raids by Germany's Luftwaffe forces.

Other survivors include a son, Richard M. Roberts; a sister, Vivian R. Moss; and four grandchildren. A memorial concert featuring the scientist's songs will be held in Honolulu at a date to be determined.

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