Homer Neal, Lounsbery Director, Dies at 75
Homer A. Neal, a physicist who helped shape education for physics undergraduates nationwide and led teams that took part in the hunt for the fundamental particles of matter, died on May 23 in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 75.
Dr. Neal had a stroke in February from which he never recovered, his wife, Donna Jean Neal, said. He died at the University of Michigan Hospital.
A longtime professor at the university, Dr. Neal ran groups there that were involved in finding the top quark and the Higgs boson, the last remaining particles — or building blocks of matter — that were ascribed to the Standard Model of physics, a best-guess description of the subatomic world.
Put forward in the 1970s, the Standard Model theorized the existence of a dozen types of matter-related particles, including so-called quarks and leptons, and different types of force-related particles. By the mid-1990s, all the quarks had been accounted for experimentally except the top quark, and by the early 2010s, the main remaining unproved ingredient was the Higgs boson, named after the British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs.
Experimental particle physics is a team effort, and more than 5,000 scientists from around the world were involved in observing what they believed to be the Higgs boson, the particle that explains why some other elementary particles have mass, Dr. Bradford Orr, a colleague of Dr. Neal’s at Michigan, said.
Dr. Neal led a Michigan team of 40 faculty members, research scientists and students on the Atlas project, one of two experiments at the world’s largest particle accelerator at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The Atlas work led to the observation of the Higgs boson in 2012. In 2013, the scientists who predicted it were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
The existence of the Higgs boson was deduced when particles were made to collide at incredible speeds in the accelerator. It existed for a vanishingly small amount of time before it decayed into a different type of particle. The Michigan group played a lead role in analyzing this decay and in the conclusion that it had indeed existed, Dr. Orr said.
Dr. Neal also led Michigan’s team in researching the top quark, whose existence had been only theorized until an international group of about 1,500 physicists was able to produce it in 1995 in the federal Department of Energy’s Fermilab particle accelerator.
Here, too, the Michigan group analyzed the decay of particles.
In perhaps his most prominent non-research role, in the mid-1980s, Dr. Neal led the first committee to examine undergraduate science, math and engineering programs for the National Science Board, which sets policies for the National Science Foundation.
The committee found that science education was so poor that it posed “a grave long-term threat” to the nation. Among other recommendations, it asked that the foundation provide undergraduates with real-world opportunities for research.
From that recommendation came the foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, which now enrolls more than 9,000 students a year. Dr. Neal also started a summer internship and semester abroad program at Michigan, allowing a few dozen American students to work at CERN every year.
Such work experiences are now crucial for students applying to graduate schools, Dr. Orr said. “That just wouldn’t exist without Homer,” he said.
Homer Alfred Neal was born on July 13, 1942, and grew up in Franklin, Ky., then a town of about 4,000. His mother, Margaret (Holland) Neal, taught economics and music in high school, and his father, Homer Neal, shod horses.
Homer was a ham radio operator in his teens, which gave him a sense of the wider world. Town leaders were unhappy, he once said, that he, an African-American in the segregated South, worked together with a white boy on ham radio projects; the collaboration ended. But Dr. Neal said he had learned from that work that skin color did not matter in science.
Dr. Neal did not often talk about race, Dr. Orr said, but he once recalled that as a child he had been encouraged to play basketball rather than pursue a career in science.
The odds were against him. Even today, only about 40 African-Americans earn a doctoral degree in physics each year, representing roughly 2 percent of the 2,000 or so doctorates awarded, according to the American Physical Society. There were far fewer when Dr. Neal went to graduate school.
“Back in the ′50s, ′60s, ′70s — if you had one African-American in your Ph.D. program per decade, that was probably the norm,” Dr. Orr said. “He was a trailblazer in that respect.”
Dr. Neal worried about that lack of diversity in physics. In 2017, he was interviewed for an American Physical Society video on the issue. “Even though nationwide huge investments have been made by the government and agencies,” he said, “the number of underrepresented children is alarming.”
Dr. Neal started his undergraduate studies at Indiana University when he was just 15, Mrs. Neal said. He went on to receive his doctorate at the University of Michigan.
Earlier in his career he was provost of the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island and dean of research and graduate development at Indiana. He joined the Michigan faculty in 1987 as chairman of the physics department. He was chosen to be interim president of the university in 1996.
As an administrator, “he was unflappable, a remarkably deft politician,” Dr. Orr said.
Dr. Neal was also a leader in his profession. In 2016 he served as president of the American Physical Society, a professional organization of 55,000 members. He sat on the board of the Ford Motor Company for 18 years, retiring in 2014, as well on the council of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Neal is survived by their children, Sharon-Denise Neal, who trained as an archaeologist, and Homer A. Neal Jr., a physicist and staff scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University; and four grandchildren.
Mrs. Neal recalled that when her husband arrived at Indiana at 15, a faculty member told him he would never make it through. Years later, she said, when he returned as a professor, “Homer Neal had the pleasure of tapping that person on the shoulder and saying, ‘Hello, how are you? I’m now on your faculty.’ That’s the kind of person Homer was. He was not a person who carried a grudge.”
New York Times, June 10, 2018