Bruce Winstein, 67, physicist who studied the edge of the universe


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Bruce Darrell Winstein, 67, of Oak Park, an experimental physicist who studied the afterglow of the universe's birth, died on Feb. 28, 2011 after a four-year battle with cancer. Born in Los Angeles on Sept. 25, 1943, he attended UCLA before earning his doctorate in physics at the California Institute of Technology in 1970.

The Samuel K. Allison Distinguished Service Professor in Physics at the Enrico Fermi Institute and College, Mr. Winstein was known as a leader of experiments measuring the aftermath of the big bang in two fundamental fields of physics — particle physics and cosmology.

A strong advocate of "blinded" measurements, in which scientists intentionally conceal the final answer while analyzing data to prevent their preconceptions from influencing the result, he imported many practices of particle physics, following a mid-career switch into cosmology, the study of the early universe.

In 1999, after 25 years of increasingly precise measurements at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Winstein and colleagues produced the first definitive evidence of "direct" CP violation — proof that matter and anti-matter, once thought to be mirror opposites, are not perfect twins. The result showed that the direction time flows, from past to future, is part of the fundamental laws of the universe.

Outside the lab, he could be a mischievous presence. He arranged increasingly elaborate and red-herring-filled surprise birthday parties for his wife, Joan, through 32 years of marriage, and loved hiking with his family each year in the Rocky Mountains. Winstein was an avid audiophile, hosting "blinded" comparisons in the 1980s between vinyl records and then-new compact discs.

He had a deep interest in film, took silent movies with a hand-cranked, 16-millimeter camera, and founded a film series at the California Institute of Technology while a graduate student. He was proud of having met both Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy, whose films he collected, and Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian modernist director whom Winstein studied intensely.

In 1999, Winstein won a Guggenheim Fellowship to collaborate with researchers in cosmology at Princeton University. He began to study the cosmic microwave background radiation — the first flash of light produced after the big bang, now an extraordinarily dim afterglow whose patterns show the footprints of events in the early universe.

Back at Chicago, Winstein helped found the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, where he served as the first director and brought together an interdisciplinary group of physicists and astronomers. He led the QUIET experiment, an international collaboration in Chile's Atacama Desert to measure the polarization, or twists, in the background radiation, to learn the effects of gravity waves believed to have rippled through the fabric of space-time almost 14 billion years ago.

Winstein was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1995 and to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2007. The American Physical Society awarded Winstein and two others the 2007 Panofsky Prize for outstanding achievements in experimental particle physics. In 1976, he gave the inaugural Arthur Holly Compton Lectures, a public lecture series at UChicago. He served on the faculty at Stanford University in 1986.

Winstein is survived by his wife, Joan; his children, Keith and Allison; and his sister, Carolee.

A memorial service is planned for the spring. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be sent to the Bruce Winstein Fund for Graduate Students, c/o Department of Physics, KPTC 201, University of Chicago, 5720 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637.

—Submitted by the University of Chicago

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Frances from Oak Park  

Posted: March 4th, 2011 8:59 PM

Bruce was also an amazing husband, father and community member. We are all better for having known him in our village. My best to Joan, Keith and Allison.

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