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Former Scripps Director, Prominent Physicist, and Key Government Advisor: Edward A. Frieman

A national leader in plasma physics and fusion theory


  • Cindy Clark

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  • Cindy Clark

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Edward A. Frieman, Ph.D., former director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and a prominent national advisor to the government on issues of vital importance to defense, energy, and science policy, died of a respiratory illness at UC San Diego’s Thornton Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., on April 11, 2013. He was 87 years old.

Edward A. Frieman

Dr. Frieman was appointed eighth director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego vice chancellor of marine sciences, and dean of the graduate school of marine sciences in July 1986. He became director emeritus upon his retirement from his administrative post in 1996. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and served as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy from 1979-81.

A plasma physicist, Dr. Frieman had extensive research interests that extended into other physical science fields, including hydromagnetics, hydrodynamics, and astrophysics. He was a professor at Princeton University for more than 25 years, after which he was employed by the federal government, academia, and the private sector.

“Ed was a wonderful example as Scripps director,” said Catherine Constable, Scripps interim director and UC San Diego vice chancellor for marine sciences. “He was thoughtful, generous, and supportive, working tirelessly behind the scenes to advance Earth, ocean, and atmospheric sciences and ensure we all had the resources we needed. We will miss him dearly.”

Dr. Frieman was born in New York City and received his bachelor's degree in engineering in 1946 from Columbia University in New York. He earned his master's degree in physics in 1948 and a Ph.D. in physics in 1952 from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, New York. During World War II, he served with the U.S. Navy as a deep-sea diving officer. He was trained as a naval hardhat diver in the Hudson River, was commissioned an ensign, and participated in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll shortly after the end of the war. He later said that observing the tests made a deep impression upon him.

Starting in 1952, Dr. Frieman worked at Princeton University on Project Matterhorn, a classified program studying nuclear fusion, with John A. Wheeler and Lyman Spitzer; in 1954, he became head of the project’s theoretical division. During his years at Princeton, he met many prominent physicists including Enrico Fermi, John von Neumann, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller. He also met Albert Einstein and attended his seminars at Princeton. In 1961, he joined the Princeton faculty as professor of astrophysical science and had several students, including Charles F. Kennel, who later served as director of Scripps Oceanography from 1998-2006. Dr. Frieman served as associate director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory from 1964-1979. During his tenure at Princeton, he was introduced to the world of submarines, military strategy, and naval tactics by Admiral Bobby Ray Inman. Years later, Dr. Frieman later served as a member of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Advisory Committee from 1987-1990.

As a science advisor to the government, Dr. Frieman worked in the areas of defense and energy. He left Princeton in 1979 to accept a position at the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) as Director of the Office of Energy Research and Assistant Secretary at the invitation of President Jimmy Carter's administration. During his years at DoE, he oversaw the agency’s program in basic science research and participated in a number of public discussions of controversial scientific issues including synthetic fuels, disposal of nuclear waste, and DoE funding of atmospheric carbon dioxide research. It was during this period that he became familiar with the issue of climate change, which has far-reaching implications for energy policy. He is credited with expanding Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s research expertise in climate change and attracting prominent scientists to Scripps, including Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a renowned specialist in the study of cloud physics and leader in groundbreaking research into the influence of pollutant aerosols on climate.

“Ed was a true pioneer and a visionary,” said Ramanathan. “Twenty years ago, he led a group of leading intellectuals and published an influential National Academy report on sustainability science that paved the way for the pursuit of sustainability as a scientific discipline in universities. He also brought in immense private and federal support to Scripps and enabled it to assume scientific leadership in climate change science. It was such a privilege and joy to know Ed personally all these years.”

“Ed Frieman was one of the great leaders in American science, and a cornerstone to UCSD's success as a great university," said Richard Atkinson, who served as chancellor of UC San Diego from 1980-1995 and as president of the University of California from 1995-2003. Dr. Frieman credited Chancellor Atkinson with providing key support when Scripps raised the prominence of climate research at the institution in the 1980s.

“He was a true friend. Ed Frieman was a classy individual, soft-spoken, and strong,” said Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. “He was a brilliant physicist in the theory of ionized matter before [UC San Diego] Chancellor Atkinson tapped him to be the director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. At Scripps, Ed showed great insight and taste in selecting research priorities and scientists. At the National Academy of Sciences, Ed led studies of national importance, unerringly.”

Dr. Frieman was a member of JASON, an independent scientific advisory group that provides consulting services to the U.S. government on matters of defense science and technology, from 1960 to 1979, when he entered government service, and again from 1981 until his death. During his years with JASON, Frieman worked on technical problems of interest to the U.S. Navy. He chaired JASON from 1976-1978.

“I met Ed in the early ‘60s at JASON and followed him through his career, serving under his directorship both at JASON and at Scripps,” said Walter Munk, research professor of geophysics at Scripps and world-renowned scientist and pioneer in wave forecasting and oceanography studies. “He always made it a point to be well informed over a broad range of scientific topics. He made his mark at Scripps by enthusiastically supporting the Research Series of appointments. Ed was a wonderful friend, always thoughtful and helpful. I appreciated his elegant shyness. We will surely miss him.”

"Ed Frieman was a master of quiet diplomacy whose behind-the-scenes efforts have strengthened Earth, ocean, and environmental sciences across the United States and internationally,” said Ray Weiss, distinguished professor of geochemistry at Scripps. “Many have benefitted from his advocacy, some without even being aware of Ed's contributions."

Prior to joining Scripps in 1986, Dr. Frieman was executive vice president for Science Applications International Corporation, a high-technology company based in La Jolla, Calif., beginning in 1981. While at UC San Diego, he was also a research professor of physics at the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps and an adjunct professor of physics at UCSD.

Dr. Frieman was a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Philosophical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Astronomical Society, Sigma Xi, and the New York Academy of Sciences.

He was the chairman of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council (NAS/NRC) Supercollider Site Evaluation Committee and on the Board of Governors for the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Israel Binational Science Foundation. He served as chairman of the NAS/NRC Board on Sustainable Development and the NRC Ocean Studies Board.

Among his many appointments on committees and panels, he served as vice-chair of the White House Science Council, and served on the President’s Science Advisory Group and on the Vice President’s Science Advisory Board, as well as on panels and advisory boards for the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of State, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He was also chairman of the U.S. President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science and of the Earth Observing System Engineering Review Advisory Committee for NASA.

In later years, he served on the Board of Trustees of the American University in Paris.

Dr. Frieman held a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in 1964 and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1970. He was awarded a Department of Energy Distinguished Service Medal in 1980, the Richtmyer Award from the American Physical Society in 1984, and the James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics in 2002. He also received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1984. In 1995, he received the Marine Technology Society Compass Distinguished Achievement Award. He received the Department of the Navy’s Superior Public Service Award in 1996.

To honor Dr. Frieman’s 70th birthday, the Edward A. Frieman Prize for Excellence in Graduate Student Research at Scripps was established by his family. The annual Frieman Prize recognizes Scripps graduate students who have truly distinguished themselves in their scientific work.

Dr. Frieman is survived by his wife, Joy, sons Michael (Judy) of Denver, Josh of Chicago, and Jonathan (Moira) of San Rafael, and daughters Wendy Frieman (Dave Johnson) of Washington, D.C., and Linda Holiner (Tim) of the Boston area, plus six grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Colleagues wishing to express condolences are invited to submit messages for web posting to

Private funeral services will be held by his immediate family. A celebration of his life will be held at Scripps at a later date. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, those wishing to honor Dr. Frieman would make donations to La Jolla Music Society or Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Mail Scripps donations to: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, In Honor of Edward A. Frieman, 9500 Gilman Drive, 0210, La Jolla, CA 92093-0210.

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