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Erich Vogt (Courtesy of TRIUMF)
Erich Vogt (Courtesy of TRIUMF)

OBITUARY

Scientist Erich Vogt put Canada on world physics map Add to ...

Despite his genius, Dr. Vogt did not always fit the image of a brainy scientist. Flamboyant, brilliant and quirky in equal measure, he was renowned for doing things his way, including a preference for rumpled attire. His son David remembers watching with a friend on campus at UBC, as his father, far from fashionably dressed, rode by on a bicycle, whistling an operatic aria. “There goes a happy janitor,” the friend remarked.

The second-eldest of six boys, Erich Wolfgang Vogt was born Nov. 12, 1929, to Mennonite parents who ran the general store in Steinbach, Man.

The state of medical care being what it was, the presiding doctor was a local veterinarian. Thinking the job done, he left, not realizing a twin boy was still in the womb. Dr. Vogt’s brother, Arthur, was consequently born without medical care, triggering several mental and physical disabilities. The two were nonetheless extremely close, until Arthur died in 2003.

At school, the inquisitive young student did not fasten immediately on physics. At 16, he listed three inspirations in his diary that he hoped would drive him throughout his life: nature, music and poetry. “They were his muses,” David Vogt says. “I think he combined all three into what he saw in physics.”

At the University of Manitoba, he soon switched from English to physics, then to nuclear physics. While at U of M, the self-professed country boy got up the courage to ask out, in his words, “a rarefied city girl” he had had his eye on for some time. Barbara Greenfield said “yes,” and their love match, evident from that first date, endured for more than 50 years, producing five children.

In the early 1950s, he was accepted at Princeton University for doctoral studies in nuclear physics. His thesis adviser was Nobel Prize-winner Eugene Wigner, a key figure in the Manhattan Project, which devised the A-bomb. And of course, there was Albert Einstein.

“We drove by his home,” Peter Vogt recalls of visiting his elder brother. “Dr. Einstein was out raking leaves. He waved at Erich. I was pretty impressed.”

Further study followed in England. This time Dr. Vogt’s adviser was Sir Rudolf Peierls, credited with facilitating development of the atomic bomb by correcting a key set of equations. From there, Dr. Vogt spent nine years at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratory in Ontario – remembered for his bright plaid shirts almost as much as for his increasingly distinguished science – helping create Canada’s first Candu reactor.

In 1965, the lure of being in on something even bigger took him to UBC. The university was already making a name for itself in the burgeoning field of nuclear physics, and Dr. Vogt joined others on campus to build an accelerator. He never left.

Dr. Vogt did not confine his boundless energy to physics. Forever searching for ways to enhance knowledge and wonder in all fields, he was an early champion of Vancouver’s much-loved Science World. He was founding chair of the Science Council of B.C., and he spent six years as academic vice-president at UBC, despite his distaste for university politics.

Forced into official retirement in 1994 at age 65, Dr. Vogt kept teaching for the next 15 years for a dollar a year, regularly earning the highest approval ratings from his students. He also kept working at TRIUMF, maintaining his office until he went into hospital. In addition to numerous scientific and academic awards, Dr. Vogt was named officer of the Order of Canada in 1974 for his singular contribution to TRIUMF.

David Vogt says his father might have won a Nobel Prize had he concentrated solely on the academic side of theoretical physics. “But he chose instead to build facilities and lead them. I think he felt very strongly that that allowed him to contribute much more to society in the long run.”

As his health began to fail, Dr. Vogt was forced to move into an assisted-living facility. That meant winnowing his beloved book collection to what could fit his diminished new quarters. His first two choices were the complete Encyclopedia Britannica and his many atlases. “He knew all that information was available on Wikipedia, but he didn’t trust it,” says David Vogt. “He had this deep, deep reverence for knowledge. It lasted his entire life.”

Dr. Vogt leaves his brother Peter, daughters Susan and Lisa, sons David, Jonathan and Robert, and his 16 grandchildren. His wife, Barbara, predeceased him in 2006.

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