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Ruth Porat and Dan Porat

Ruth Porat, '79 (left), honored her father, Dan Porat, at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology in November 2013. PHOTO: Steve Castillo

Once Denied an Education, Physicist Inspires Future Scholars

A gift from Ruth Porat, '79, and Anthony Paduano establishes a postdoctoral fellowship in honor of Dan Porat. 

Summer 2014

Dan Porat lay under the stars in the Libyan Desert. It was 1942, and he was serving as a volunteer for the Allied forces. By his side were a rifle and a textbook. He believed education would be his passport to the United States and a new life. It turned out he was right.

As a Jew born in Poland and raised in Austria, Porat's access to school was interrupted by the Nazi occupation. He fled to Palestine just as World War II exploded, later losing his entire family to the Holocaust and joining the British army. There he used his soldier's pay of two shillings and twopence a day to enroll in correspondence courses, a decision for which his comrades teased him without end.

"Tomorrow you will die, so what's the point of studying math?" they asked. To which he would retort: "I would like to die an educated man."

Porat would eventually become an engineer at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), and his children and grandchildren would attend Stanford. When his eldest daughter, Ruth Porat, '79 (Parent '14, '17, '18), considered how best to celebrate her father's 91st birthday, she was reminded of his favorite aphorism: "There's no greater gift than education."

Together with her husband, Anthony Paduano, she has established the Dan Porat Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC), within the School of Humanities and Sciences. Their $1 million gift, which received matching funds from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the university, will ensure that future generations of physicists have the resources to pursue their research and education.

Stanford's Wheelhouse

After the war, at the age of 33 and with less than a decade of formal schooling, Dan Porat was admitted to a master's program at the University of Manchester in England. It was the birthplace of nuclear physics, and he went on to earn a master's in physics, a PhD in electrical engineering, and then a position as a research fellow in physics at Harvard, thereby fulfilling his dream of coming to America. In 1962, he joined the physics design team at SLAC.

During his 26-year tenure, Porat first oversaw the group that designed the controls for the Stanford Linear Accelerator, still the longest accelerator of its kind in the world. After the accelerator's construction, he designed instruments for high-energy physics research. Porat filed numerous patents, published six textbooks, and authored more than 40 scientific and technical papers.

The Porat Fellowship honors not only his legacy in physics but also the Porat family's legacy at Stanford. Ruth Porat, who is the chief financial officer of Morgan Stanley, says that through her service on the Stanford Board of Trustees and the Council of the School of Humanities and Sciences, she recognized the increasing need for postdoctoral fellowships—and the kind of unfettered exploration they support.

Paduano, an intellectual property lawyer, explains that the field of physics is underfunded and yet incredibly successful at the university. Since 1952, 19 Nobel Prizes in Physics have been awarded to members of the Stanford community.

"This is Stanford's wheelhouse," he says.

First Porat Fellow Named

Of the more than 100 physicists and cosmologists who work at KIPAC, 40 are postdoctoral scholars. Independent funding such as the Porat Fellowship allows them to work without restrictions and cross academic boundaries.

"Postdocs are a crucial part of the university's brain trust," says Richard Saller, the Vernon R. & Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Kleinheinz Family Professor of European Studies. "They enhance the intellectual vitality of Stanford by bringing a source of creative energy, inspiring both faculty and students."

In December, Radek Wojtak was selected as the inaugural Porat Fellow from a competitive pool of 282 applicants. His research will investigate dark matter and dark energy, the mysterious components believed to make up 95 percent of the universe.

As fate or cosmic coincidence would have it, Wojtak shares more in common with his namesake than a field of study. He's from a small town in eastern Poland, the same region where Dan Porat was born in 1922.