Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

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

OBITUARY

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

As a child in Steinbach, Man., Erich Vogt stared up at the vast prairie sky, watching as a large flock of Canada geese flew overhead in perfect V-formation, and was struck with wonder. That sense of wonder lasted throughout his long, storied career as one of Canada’s most eminent nuclear scientists, driving him to associate with anyone who could nourish it, from famous scientists involved in the Manhattan Project to an aging Albert Einstein, to the thousands of first-year physics students he taught over more than four decades at the University of British Columbia. (“Before they got jaded,” he would explain.)

Yet Dr. Vogt made his greatest mark as co-founder of the remarkable laboratory at UBC known as TRIUMF, which catapulted Canada into the front ranks of nuclear research. Forty years later, TRIUMF and its celebrated cyclotron continue to thrive, branching into areas never dreamed of back in those heady days when visionaries such as Dr. Vogt conceived of establishing the facility, the likes of which had never been contemplated in Canada.

Its reach extended as far as the landmark discovery of the Higgs boson particle at the famous CERN laboratory in Switzerland in 2012. As many as 75 Canadian physicists from universities across the country, using TRIUMF as their chief base, were part of the international team involved in the breakthrough.

Their participation in this form of international collaboration was due largely to Dr. Vogt’s pivotal 13 years as director. During this time, ending in 1994, he pushed, prodded and promoted TRIUMF relentlessly, overseeing its expansion from a brilliant but basic research facility to a global player.

“He was responsible for getting us on the world map of physics,” says Ewart Blackmore, senior research scientist at TRIUMF. “He made it a truly international laboratory, where outside scientists loved to come, and the major laboratories of the world took notice of our technical and research successes.” A study several years ago placed Canada among the top six countries for particle and nuclear research, thanks primarily to TRIUMF.

Dr. Vogt, who died Feb. 19 from heart complications, was there from the start. It was an audacious project, centred on an immense cyclotron that remains largest on the planet, even today. Such an enterprise, costing close to $80-million even then, would almost certainly never be built in this age of often suffocating bureaucratic scrutiny, restraint and escalating price tags. Experts estimate a similar construction would now cost more than a billion dollars. But times were simpler then. Infused with the success of Expo 67, Canada was searching for further ways to attract global attention. The federal Liberal government was open to such bold missions. Said then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau at TRIUMF’s official opening: “I don’t know what a cyclotron is, but I’m sure glad Canada has one now.”

Cyclotrons such as the one at TRIUMF accelerate hydrogen ions to form intense beams of protons that can be directed at targets. The resulting particle beam is powerful enough to “smash” atoms, providing vital material for nuclear research and, more recently, practical applications such as feeding the growing demand for medical isotopes.

The lab’s focus has also shifted to astrophysics, examining the mysteries of stars and how they came to be.

Located in a three-storey underground bunker, the TRIUMF cyclotron is the cornerstone of Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics, headquarters for more than 400 scientists, engineers and staff.

It is still Ottawa’s largest single investment in science.

Few could have foreseen all this 50 years ago when a small group of scientists decided it was time for a Canadian accelerator to tap into the hot new field of nuclear physics.

While John Warren, head of nuclear physics at UBC, Californian Reg Richardson and a few others concentrated on design and construction, Dr. Vogt was theoretician and chief booster, successfully driving the quest for funds.

“He was the most focused on making the case to the public, the brashest and most ambitious,” says Tim Meyer, head of strategic planning and communications at TRIUMF. “It would never have happened without him.”

The first successful beam was produced Dec. 15, 1974, to cheers and champagne. “It was a great moment,” Dr. Blackmore says. “We knew then the thing would work.” They had no idea just how well it would work. While other accelerators have fallen by the wayside, TRIUMF’s cyclotron has proved astonishingly adaptable, displaying a flexibility that has enabled its conversion into myriad uses unforeseen in 1974. “For more than three decades, this cyclotron has remained at the cutting edge of science,” Mr. Meyer says.

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.

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @rodmickleburgh

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular