Bruno Zumino, an Italian physicist and UC Berkeley professor emeritus, died Sunday at the age of 91. He was best known for his work on particle physics.
Zumino was born on April 28, 1923, in Rome, Italy, and graduated from the University of Rome in 1945. After serving as an assistant professor and researcher at New York University, he went on to join CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, as a senior researcher. He became a professor at UC Berkeley in 1981.
His scientific contributions, including his namesake Wess-Zumino model, helped define supersymmetry, a component of theoretical particle physics. Though Zumino was internationally lauded for his groundbreaking research, he was well known on campus for his friendly demeanor.
“He was a very kind and generous man, and I really just absolutely loved having him around as a colleague,” said Raphael Bousso, Zumino’s former colleague and a current professor at the Berkeley Center for Theoretical Physics. “He made me feel very welcome when I arrived at Berkeley about 10 years ago, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
On Bousso’s first day on the job, Zumino walked into his office, leaving Bousso “in awe.” The senior professor welcomed his new coworker and then began to pick crumbs up off of the office floor, apparently unhappy that it had been left in that condition.
“This unbelievable man, that I so admire, (was) standing there cleaning my office,” Bousso said, laughing. “But that’s the kind of guy he was. He was totally unassuming, and at the same time, you could see he was a tremendous intellectual force.”
Yasunori Nomura, another professor at the theoretical physics center, said he didn’t detect the slightest hint of arrogance upon first meeting Zumino. He introduced himself by saying “ciao” and proceeded to ask Nomura about the Japanese language and culture — which Nomura, then a recent immigrant with poor English skills, said came as something of a relief.
“I guessed that he was an old professor, but didn’t know he was Bruno Zumino, one of the ‘gods’ in our field, which I learned later,” Nomura said in an email.
He said Zumino was still active in academic circles until the end of his life and discussed new physics research with students sometimes 60 years his junior.
Zumino’s passing comes about one year after a symposium held in honor of his 90th birthday, dubbed Brunofest. The event hosted renowned physicists from all over the world, including Stanley Deser, a professor emeritus of physics at Brandeis University.
Deser, who said he had known Zumino for 50 years, recalled working with him during the 1970s for up to 18 hours a day. Though Zumino was 10 years older than him, Deser said, he was a man of “infinite energy,” always fresh and enthusiastic after long nights of lab work.
While Zumino’s field is very technical, and his discoveries difficult to diffuse into laymen’s terms, Deser stressed that, rather than focus on any one specific achievement, he should be honored for his pioneering contribution to physics as a whole.
“(He was) a leader in the new directions that have turned out to be extremely fruitful for understanding the universe,” Deser said. “If you — as an outsider — had taken a course with him, you would have come out the other end enlightened.”