Oct. 10, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 2

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    Turkevich, 1916–2002, studied composition of universe

    Anthony Turkevich, a veteran of the Manhattan Project who later developed scientific instruments that identified what constitutes the moon and Mars, died Saturday, Sept. 7, at the Kendal retirement community in Lexington, Va. He was 86.

    Turkevich, the James Franck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry and the College, made a career of studying the physical and chemical composition of the universe. His research ranged from observing the fundamental properties of matter with particle accelerators to identifying the chemical composition of meteorites, the lunar surface and the planets. In 1950, for example, he teamed up with Nobel laureate and Chicago physicist Enrico Fermi to calculate the elements produced in the big bang.

    “The first real analysis of another planet came from Turkevich’s alpha backscattering experiment on the moon,” said Gerald Wasserburg, the John MacArthur professor emeritus in geology and geophysics at the California Institute of Technology. As a researcher, Wasserburg said, Turkevich “was always deep, penetrating, with exquisite experimental skills and an incredible physical understanding.”

    Turkevich was able to analyze the lunar soil with his alpha scattering instrument, which was carried aboard the robotic Surveyor V space probe, and which landed on the moon on Sept. 11, 1967. Turkevich and his team found basalt–volcanic rock–highly laced with titanium at the site. His analysis was based on a new method, and many scientists were initially skeptical of the results. His findings were later vindicated through analysis of lunar samples collected during the Apollo 11 mission, Wasserburg said.

    Turkevich repeated his alpha scattering experiments on Surveyor VI, which landed Nov. 10, 1967, and Surveyor VII, which landed on Jan. 10, 1968, at different lunar locations.

    Turkevich later devised an instrument to detect poisonous lead in paint that was similar in construction to the instrument that was sent to the moon. Yet another version of his instrument, the Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer, successfully performed the first chemical analysis of Martian rocks on board the Mars Pathfinder rover in 1997.

    “His alpha scattering experiment is credited for the development of the backscattering spectrometry that is used today in every semiconductor laboratory,” said Thanasis Economou, Senior Scientist in the Enrico Fermi Institute.

    “He was always selecting the most difficult and most exotic experiments because the easy ones could be done by anyone,” said Economou, who collaborated with Turkevich for 38 years. “His deep knowledge of radiochemistry was essential in accomplishing one of the most difficult experiments ever done in the field–the double beta decay of uranium 238 from 1985 to 1991.”

    The measurement added to the growing evidence that subatomic particles called neutrinos have mass. The finding was provocative because it ran against the grain of prevailing theory at the time, which held that neutrinos have no mass.

    Turkevich was born in New York City on July 23, 1916. He earned his B.A. from Dartmouth College in 1937 and his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Princeton University in 1940.

    During World War II, he was a member of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. This work led to his participation in the test of the first nuclear bomb at Alamagordo, N.M., in 1945. He also served as a delegate to the Geneva Conference on Nuclear Test Suspension in 1958 and 1959.

    Turkevich joined the Chicago faculty in 1946. He was named the James Franck Distinguished Service Professor in 1970, and Professor Emeritus in 1986.

    Among his awards were the E.O. Lawrence Memorial Award from the Atomic Energy Commission in 1962, the Ford Foundation’s Atoms for Peace Award in 1969, an honorary doctor of science degree from Dartmouth College in 1971 and the Award for Nuclear Applications from the American Chemical Society in 1972. He also was elected to the National Academy of Sciences–one of the highest honors that can be accorded to a U.S. scientist–and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

    Turkevich is survived by his wife, Ireene, Lexington, Va.; his brother, Nicholas Turkevich, West Fairlee, Vt.; his daughter, Darya Carney, Grand Rapids, Mich.; his son, Leonid Turkevich, Alpharetta, Ga.; and three grandchildren, Elizabeth, Paul and Julia Turkevich, Alpharetta, Ga.