In Memoriam Wilfred Hirt (1936 - 2018)

Wilfred Hirt, physicist, sailor, pilot and former vice-director of the Paul Scherrer Institute died on June 13 in Biel. He was 82 years old.

After studying physics at ETH Zürich and doing doctoral research at CERN, Wilfred joined the team of Prof. Jean-Pierre Blaser that was working on the design of a new kind of accelerator. The plans for a meson “factory” based on this novel cyclotron design matured quickly and in 1968 the Swiss Institute for Nuclear Research (SIN) was created, where Wilfred became the head of administration and vice-director. He and the director Blaser led a lean and very efficient team that oversaw the construction of this unique high intensity proton accelerator that until today remains the world’s most powerful machine. The proton beam drives not only the spallation neutron source SINQ, but also creates the brightest muon beams used for both fundamental physics experiments and solid state physics research.

A man of clear vision for the Swiss research scene, he was the first to bring up the idea of joining SIN with the neighboring Swiss Federal Institute for Reactor Research (EIR). Not only the synergies, but even more so the new research directions that would open up as a result of the fusion of the two institutes, were on his mind. A larger institute with strong ties to the Swiss universities would be more robust against fluctuations, less dependent on individual research topics of the day and capable of redirecting resources to the new challenges and themes of future research topics.

This idea was met with far from uniform support in both institutes, but thanks to his able handling of what in today’s jargon is called “change management”, this union became the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) and he remained vice-director of PSI until his retirement in 1998.

The first years of the newly created institute were not easy, the politics tried to impose tight control over the research directions. Wilfred fought hard to maintain autonomy of scientific research.

It was in those first years that after the proposal to build a B-factory at PSI did not find the needed support, he seized the idea of the designer team of that project to propose the construction of a very advanced synchrotron radiation source, which was to become the Swiss Light Source (SLS) later on. The first proposal to build such a 3rd generation light source met with strong resistance by significant segments of the Swiss scientific community. Wilfred and the SLS team had to explain to all the major players, and especially to the Universities and the National Science Foundation, the importance and great potential of such a facility. Together with Meinrad Eberle, who took over the directorship of the institute in 1992, they worked hard to convince the community and finally in 1997 obtained the project approval by the Swiss Parliament. The rest, as they say, is history. Swiss Light Source became a great success and paved the way to construction of the next flagship research facility at PSI, the SwissFEL.

PSI is 30 years old and this year’s celebration is a fitting tribute to the memory of one of its founders who contributed so much to its success. The Paul Scherrer Institute supports research done by a large national and international user community and is recognized today as one of the world’s leading national research laboratories. The fusion of two single-mission institutes into a multidisciplinary laboratory operating large scale research facilities, providing the ETHs and Swiss universities as well as industry with unique instruments that serve a wide spectrum of natural, engineering and life sciences, is indeed a success story.

Martin Jermann and Leonid Rivkin


[Released: October 2018]