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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Michael Ronan Remembered for Hard Work, Versatility, Enthusiasm

Michael Thomas Ronan, who fell to his death on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 17, from an upper floor of Bldg 50B, will be remembered today in a special ceremony sponsored by the UC Berkeley Physics Department, to be held at 6:00 p.m. in Room 1 of LeConte Hall. A mass was held yesterday at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Pinole. Ronan was 57 years old. He is survived by his wife, Alda, and grown children Kevin and Stacey.

Ronan received his bachelor's degree in physics in 1970 from the University of Massachusetts, followed by his master's degree and, in 1976, his Ph.D. in elementary particle physics from Boston's Northeastern University. That same year he joined the Physics Division at Berkeley Lab.

Angela (Lina) Galtieri headed the committee that hired Ronan; she was struck by his "talent and enthusiasm, which made him stand out from the long line of people we interviewed." Galtieri and a Berkeley Lab team were then working with Martin Perl in a hunt for charmed particles at SLAC's SPEAR ring, and she immediately put Ronan to work. There he installed new electronics for the Lead-Glass Wall modification of the Mark I detector, designed to catch high-energy photons. "Mike would go out of his way to do the best job on the electronics; later he did a fantastic job analyzing the data," says Galtieri, noting his important contributions to the year-and-half experimental run, which confirmed the existence of the tau lepton and discovered a new resonance, the psi(3772). She notes that Ronan treasured an impromptu sit-down discussion with Richard Feynman, when Ronan gave a talk on the Mark I results at Caltech.

Ronan became a member of the team that built the first Time Projection Chamber (TPC), a new kind of particle detector proposed by David Nygren, along with Jay Marx and Galtieri, who calls him "one of the pillars of the experiment."   Ronan was in charge of the first TPC's trigger and timing system. Nygren says, "As part of the trigger he created a sliding time window in the circuitry that was quite sophisticated for the times. I marveled at his ability to move seamlessly back and forth between hardware and software."

Although he worked on a range of detectors and accelerators, Ronan became a particular champion of the TPC concept; he organized international meetings on TPCs, wrote the TPC section of a Particle Data Group review, and was involved in constructing test versions and full-scale TPCs at sites including Fermilab and SLAC, where he was spokesperson for the joint PEP4 and PEP9 experiments.

In recent years Ronan was spearheading a TPC detector design for the International Linear Collider, of which Nygren says, "Mike was unique in his ability to invent something from nothing and make it happen. He had an idea for a detector with certain capabilities, and he brought together colleagues from France, Germany, Japan, Canada, and catalyzed their efforts." Recently Nygren talked with Ronan about his new Java-based software simulation system for modeling TPCs.  

"He was a true scientist with a varied and idiosyncratic career, who struck out on his own in many ways," Nygren says of Ronan, voicing a theme echoed by Jim Siegrist, Stu Loken, Ron Madaras, Carl Haber, Galtieri, and other fellow physicists who knew him: "a colorful character who provided much of the texture of Physics Division"; "a very ingenious instrument designer"; "a good physicist, always enjoyable to be around"; "enthusiasm, talent, and always looking toward the future are what made him a great physicist."

His job was the center of Ronan's life, although there was much more to it. Galtieri watched him raise his children and remembers him as a loving father. Nygren said Ronan was delighted to be relearning French (with which he'd had a childhood acquaintance) and practicing it on his European friends in the International Linear Collider project. Some weeks ago Willy Chinowsky saw Ronan on the Lab shuttle bus: "he seemed happy and pleased with progress of the introductory physics class he was teaching on campus." The afternoon of Ronan's death he was making plans for the evening. The investigation into the circumstances is ongoing.

-- Paul Preuss

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