Courtenay Wright, particle physicist and D-Day witness, 1923-2018

Gifted teacher changed our understanding of subatomic world

Prof. Emeritus Courtenay Wright, a gifted teacher, World War II veteran and particle physicist who changed our understanding of the structure of protons and neutrons, died Nov. 22 in Chicago. He was 95.

During a career that spanned more than 50 years at the University of Chicago, Wright worked with scientists including Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi on particle accelerator research that provided some of the foundational measurements of the properties of quarks—the fundamental building blocks of matter.

During World War II, Wright decoded messages as a radar officer in the Royal Navy and was among the first to know about the launch of D-Day. He was aboard the HMS Apollo when it ran aground carrying Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower to visit the beaches of Normandy on June 7, 1944—the day after D-Day.

“I could talk about Courtenay for days,” said crime novelist Sara Paretsky, AM’69, MBA’77, PhD’77, to whom Wright was married for 42 years. “I loved his zest for life and for taking risks, his meticulous attention to detail in his work—or in reviewing my own—but above all, a deep-rooted empathy and compassion that made him open to all people, all experiences. I will never stop missing him.”

After the war, Wright earned his doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley, studying with Manhattan Project group leader and future Nobel laureate Emilio Segrè. Not long afterward, Fermi, who helped build the world's first nuclear reactor at UChicago, recruited Wright to the University of Chicago.

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Wright studied physics processes related to nuclear fission and early nuclear reactors. The Chicago synchrocyclotron, a type of particle accelerator, became operational in 1951 under the direction of Fermi, and Wright performed experiments with the accelerator to better understand the scattering of protons and the symmetries they obey.

“Wright made an incredible impact on the field of high-energy physics,” said Young-Kee Kim, the Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the Department of Physics. “Modern experiments involving proton and neutron collisions rely on the knowledge of quark structure function that Wright and his contemporaries first established.”

Hands-on engineering

In 1971, Fermilab approved Wright’s “Experiment 98,” which aimed to study the structure of the proton using muons as a probe with the help of an analyzing magnet from the Chicago synchrocyclotron. Wright helped orchestrate the move of the 2,500-ton magnet 45 miles from the University campus to Fermilab and built the detector for these experiments.

“His muon scattering experiments at Fermilab helped us understand the behavior of the quarks in protons and were the precursors to experiments we now do with CERN’s Large Hadron Collider,” said Prof. Emeritus James Pilcher.

Wright also studied the rare decays of muons using the linear accelerator at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. According to physics colleague Henry Frisch, Wright was a hands-on engineer, building trigger electronics for this experiment himself.

“Courtenay was a beacon of thoughtfulness and consideration,” said Frisch, a professor of physics. “If a piece of equipment wasn’t working, you could ask him to take a look, and he always knew what was wrong.”

Wright was involved in politics throughout his life: He was a member of JASON, a group of elite scientific advisers to the Pentagon during the Cold War, with whom he co-authored an analysis warning the U.S. not to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

He also once drew a bid of $1,000 at an American Civil Liberties Union charity auction to explain general relativity to the bidder—a testament to his dedication to teaching and explaining physics clearly.

Courtenay also carried on the UChicago physics tradition, begun by Albert Michelson, of playing pool in the Quadrangle Club. Under the aegis of Willie Zachariasen, Wright and Albert Crewe brought the game to new heights; two weeks before his death, Wright ran the table.

He is survived by his wife as well as three children and one grandchild.