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A complete physicist

Dead at 96, Bernhard Gross coupled theory and practice with rare brilliance

When one hears of the professional qualities of physicist Bernhard Gross, it is difficult to know in which area he performed best: in the theoretical part, or the experimental one, or in teaching? The difficulty in classifying this German, naturalized Brazilian, is just as common among his friends and disciples as the admiration he caused over the 69 years he lived in Brazil. Gross, a complete physicist, died on February 1st, in São Carlos (SP), at the age of 96.

Bernhard Gross arrived in Brazil in 1933, when he was 28, coming from the Stuttgart School of Engineering, in Germany, where he was born. But he had already visited the country, at the age of 9, with his mother. When he disembarked in Rio de Janeiro, the physicist brought in his baggage at least one important work on cosmic rays (elementary particles of energy that reach Earth), done in Europe. Later on, this study bore his name: the “Gross transformation” related the vertical flow of particles to the hemispheric flow, detected by ionization chambers.

Arriving in Rio, Gross quickly became part of the scientific circles, concentrated on the Polytechnic School. In those days, the profession of physicist did not exist in Brazil, nor any specialized course that could lead to a bachelor’s degree in physics. “Therefore, all physicists had to be self-taught”, Gross recalled, in a talk he gave in 1984, later published in the Revista Brasileira de Ensino de Física [Brazilian Magazine of the Teaching of Physics] (June 2000). He started to work on research in Brazil in 1934, in the National Institute of Technology, in Rio. There, he turned his attention to the study of solid dielectrics submitted to magnetic fields, from both the theoretical and the experimental point of view, a subject in which he became one of the most respected specialists in the world.

After the Second World War, Gross started to travel abroad to carry out research and to take part in conferences. Between 1957 and 1958, he became Brazil’s representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, and he stayed there as its director of the Department of Scientific Information until 1967. He was one of the first to measure the radioactivity falling in the Southern Hemisphere, caused by hydrogen bomb testing in the Northern Hemisphere. He also developed an apparatus, called a Compton dosimeter, to detect gamma rays, which was used by the Americans in nuclear tests.

Gross took an active part in organizations that were to be fundamental for the development of science in the country. “Álvaro Alberto, Joaquim Costa Ribeiro and Gross formed the backbone in the first years of the National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq)”, says Sérgio Mascarenhas, a director of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA/USP), in São Carlos. It was Mascarenhas who took him to work at the Institute of Physics of the University of São Paulo, in São Carlos, at the beginning of the 70’s.

Gross was married to Gertrude, with whom he had two sons, Antônio and Roberto. “He remained active until 1966, when he last gave guidance for a thesis for a doctorate”, said Guilherme Leal Ferreira, another physicist who was very close to him. When he died, he left about 200 articles published in magazines from Brazil and abroad. The current pro-rector for Research at USP, Luiz Nunes, who was one of Gross’s students, talks of a rare quality of his. “He would encourage and give noteworthy value to other people’s ideas, even if they came from researchers who very young and still quite humble”, he says. For a scientist of his weight, that was a lot.

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