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William A. Nierenberg

William Aaron Nierenberg (February 13, 1919 – September 10, 2000) was an American physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and was director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography from 1965 through 1986.[1] He was a co-founder of the George C. Marshall Institute in 1984.


Nierenberg was born on February 13, 1919, at 213 E. 13th Street, on the Lower East Side of New York, the son of very poor Jewish immigrants from Austro-Hungary.[2] He went to Townsend Harris High School and then the City College of New York (CCNY), where he won a scholarship to spend his junior year of university abroad, in France at the University of Paris.[2] He entered graduate school at Columbia University in 1939, but spent the war years from 1942 seconded to the Manhattan Project, working on isotope separation, before returning to Columbia to complete his PhD.

In 1948 Nierenberg took up his first academic staff position, as Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan. From 1950 to 1965 he was Associate and then Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he had a very large and productive low energy nuclear physics laboratory, graduating 40 PhD’s during this time and publishing about 100 papers. During that period he took a one-year leave to serve as the director of the Columbia University Hudson Laboratory. Later, he oversaw the design and construction of the “new” physics building at Berkeley. Much later (1960–1962) he took leave once again as Assistant Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in charge of scientific affairs, where he oversaw many international studies on physics and advanced defense technologies.

In 1965 Nierenberg was asked to run one of the most prestigious oceanographic institution in the world, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). His background in sonar research and other naval-related science, his knowledge of and interest in geophysics dating from his college times and his many friendships in the community made him intellectually and professionally eager to go. By then he had also developed the many necessary international relationships. As SIO’s longest serving director, he quadrupled the funding for the institution and developed a fleet of five modern research vessels.

Nierenberg gained national recognition for his achievements and contributions to science. In 1965, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and to the Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1979. He was also elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Arts and Sciences.