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In Memoriam: Peter Kahn  

Professor Peter Kahn, one of the first members of the Stony Brook Physics Department, died unexpectedly on April 26, 2016 at the age of 81. He served as chair for 12 years. He came to Stony Brook in 1961 after receiving his Ph.D. in Mathematical Physics at Northwestern University in 1960 and doing a brief stint at the University of Iowa. He initially worked on random matrix theory and focused in later years on biophysics and nonlinear dynamics.

Peter assisted in the move of the University to its current campus ("the mud years") and the rapid growth of the Physics Department in size and national prominence under its charismatic chairman Alex Pond, when Physics Nobelist C.N. Yang and renowned nuclear theorist Gerald Brown, among others, joined Stony Brook. When he became chair of the department in 1974, he successfully reconnected to the building-up spirit of the Pond years. He instituted orderly procedures for hiring, promotion and tenure that continue to serve the department well. His excellent relationship with the university administration allowed him to expand the department by attracting and mentoring a number of excellent young scientists over a broad range of physics. He had an unwavering sense for academic quality. By the end of his chairmanship in 1986, the department faculty had grown to more than 50 members and many of his hires have achieved national stature.

After his retirement, he devoted considerable energy to documenting the history of the department’s development and growth to national prominence, through interviews and original documents.

Peter had a life-long interest in books and scoured bookstores for volumes which he often donated as prizes for various student awards. For many years, he advised the publisher of Dover Books, rescuing a number of out-of-print works from obscurity into affordable editions. It was most fitting that upon his retirement in 2003, the department arranged for the library in the physics building to be renamed the Peter B. Kahn Library of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. He is also remembered by the Peter B. Kahn Fellowship program which supports graduate student travel to international meetings and other educational and professional activities to advance their career development.

Those of the physics faculty who were at Stony Brook during Peter’s tenure as chair well remember the collegial, almost familial, spirit in the department. He instituted a "Tuesday Lunch Seminar" and invited faculty from other departments to come discuss their work with physics faculty, thus building academic connections across the University. Many social events among department members fostered mutual interest and respect, which has continued to be an important feature of our community. This tradition of teamwork was one of Peter Kahn’s enduring contributions to the department and continues to serve us well to this day.

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To donate to the Peter B. Kahn endowment please click here.


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