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Obituary: Kurt Efraim Nielsen, April 29, 1937 – May 12, 2020

Jul. 21, 2020
Category: Obituary

Kurt E. Nielsen passed away on May 12, 2020, due to heart failure and illness. Kurt was born the eldest son of immigrants from Denmark and Sweden, Ejnar and Karin Nielsen, on April 29, 1937. Kurt’s younger brother Ken was born 3 years later.

They grew up on a farm in Long Island, New York. The main product of the farm was Kosher chickens, blessed by the local Rabi, for the New York City market. Kurt would get up at 5 AM every day, a lifelong habit, to help with the crops and animals. By age 7 Kurt had his first driver’s license, so he could drive the family tractor.

While on a family vacation trip to upstate New York to scout properties for Ejnar Nielsen’s dream of a cattle ranch, Kurt’s father realized he was sick. Ejnar was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and died soon after at the age of 44. Kurt was just 16 and his brother Ken was 13. The decision was made to sell the family farm.

Kurt then needed to choose a new career. A fellow trumpeter at the Salvation Army recommended that Kurt to go into math or engineering. Kurt earned a scholarship and went to New York State Teachers College (now State University of New York) in Albany, New York. While there, in 1955, he met and “fell in love at first sight” with Ruth. “From the moment we met, I knew you were the one I would love forever.” Ruth worked as an Executive Secretary / Administrative Assistant for the New York State Department of Health. Dates frequently consisted of long walks in the local Washington Park in Albany. On May 1959, Kurt graduated with a BS in Physics and a teaching certificate. Kurt and Ruth were married on September 5, 1959. In August 1960 Kurt graduated with a MS in Physics.

In 1961 Kurt and Ruth moved to Madison, Wisconsin. There Ruth worked at UW for Psychologist Carl Rogers and Chair of Agricultural Economics Harlo Halverson, while Kurt went back to school. While at UW, Kurt worked with his Professor Raymond (Ray) Herb on accelerators and trying to find quarks for his Graduate Thesis. While not successful at the time, members of the group Kurt worked with went on to succeed in finding Quarks. While in Wisconsin, Kurt and Ruth also had two children, a son David in 1966, and a daughter Cheryl in 1968. Kurt received a Ph.D. in Experimental Plasma and Nuclear Physics, from the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, in 1969.

Upon graduation, Kurt chose to move his family to California’s San Francisco Bay Area for a job as a Physicist in the defense industry at Physics International. This was the start of Kurt’s long and respected career in Pulsed Power. For the next 28 years Kurt worked at Physics International (PI) and Pulse Sciences Inc. (PSI), in California. At PI and PSI Kurt worked on the design of Pulsed Power equipment, including state-of-the-art EMP and laser drivers, particle beam fusion programs, experimental R&D, and experimental diagnostics. Eventually Kurt became a Program Manager and Technical Director.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s Kurt traveled frequently in the US and Europe on business, going to Germany, France, Scotland, England, and Switzerland. While in Europe, he also went to Denmark and Sweden to visit the towns and the relatives of his parents. Travel included trips to the Harry Diamond Laboratory in Maryland and the Kernforschungszentrum, in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Kurt Nielsen started work at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in December of 1997 as a Pulsed Power engineer in the Physics Division. In this role, he brought his vast experience in pulsed power to the LANL technical community, and was instrumental in the design of many high-voltage systems on Atlas, which at the time, was one of the premier pulsed power machines intended to be used for weapons research.

After the assembly and commissioning of the Atlas machine in April of 2000, Kurt looked for other challenges and went to work in the Dynamic Experimentation (DX) Division working at the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility. The DARHT facility uses two independent linear induction accelerators (LIAs) to produce the world’s most intense X-rays for radiographic research. The first axis provides a single pulse, and the second axis, a much more powerful and complex accelerator, provides four pulses. In DX, Kurt led the pulsed power team responsible for the hardware systems driving the second-axis LIA. His pulsed power expertise played an instrumental role in the design, assembly and operation of the second axis of DARHT.

“Kurt led the successful electrical redesign of the DARHT Axis 2 long-pulse induction cells. This included addressing the multiple problems in the cell oil and vacuum regions as well as in the cell drivers. Kurt directed a design team that consisted of High Voltage Pulsed Power experts from the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, as well as experts from outside companies including, L3 Pulse Sciences Division (formerly Physics International), Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and Mission Research Corporation (MRC).”** “The world is definitely a much safer place because of the technologies and capabilities he helped realize. DARHT is by far no exception, which continues to be the envy of the international community.” *

Kurt’s long career at LANL was a continuation of his already extensive pulsed power career, a career in which he was one of the most well-known, and well-liked members of the global Pulsed Power community. Kurt was first a Team Leader, and later worked as Engineer 5 and Scientist 5 at LANL. Kurt made many friends both at work and in the community. He was greatly respected by his colleagues at PI, PSI, and LANL. “He gained a lot of respect through his work ethic and knowledge, and for his unselfish nature. Kurt was always cheerful and more than willing to do what he could to help the project figure out how to fix the problems and move forward. Kurt was tenacious when addressing problems, but at the same time had an easy-going style which brought out the best in his colleagues. He was completely at home in the lab running pulsed power experiments, in the control room checking the high voltage performance of the accelerator, or in his office analyzing data. Kurt was also very generous to give credit to others and never spotlighted himself. He was a mentor to both young and old alike.” * Kurt published and peer reviewed for American Physical Society and IEEE.

Kurt traveled frequently between his home in California and an apartment in New Mexico. Kurt loved travel, nature, and hiking. Both his home in California, and his apartment in New Mexico, were close to large parks and long hiking trails. He was a great Dad, who loved doing things with his family. Over the years, Kurt took his family camping at many State and National Parks. Frequent destinations included Yosemite, Death Valley, the California Coast, and the Redwood Forests. In each park, the first stop would be the visitor center and museum to learn about the local geology, plants, and animals. Visits to museums in San Francisco such as the Exploratorium, the California Academy of Sciences, or the Asian Art Museum, were frequent ways of celebrating a birthday or holiday.

A highlight for our family was a business trip to Washington DC in the Summer of 1985. We took a motorhome from California, through the southern states, up to Washington DC. There we stayed for two weeks seeing the sites and museums while Kurt was at work. Then we traveled back to California through the northern states. Along the way we visited many family members and friends, who by then were scattered throughout the USA.

Kurt loved his work, and he loved being with his friends and colleagues. There is an old saying, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Kurt found that job in his work as a Pulsed Power Physicist. Kurt was still a full-time employee, having worked at LANL for 22 years, and in Pulsed Power for 50 years, when he passed away.

Kurt and Ruth were married for 60 years in September 2019. Kurt is survived by his wife Ruth, his children David and Cheryl, his brother Ken, 5 nephews, 5 nieces, and many grandnieces and grandnephews. We are comforted by knowing that he is now at home with God. Kurt was laid to rest June 6, 2020 in Los Alamos, NM. A Remembrance Service will be held at a later date.

In lieu of flowers we would like donations to the following groups.

Prostate Cancer Foundation, https://www.pcf.org/
American Heart Association, https://www.heart.org/
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, https://www.stjude.org/
The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, https://www.michaeljfox.org/

* Many thanks to those who contributed to Kurt’s Obituary, including Ian Smith, Ray Scarpetti, Ryan Vliestra, Will Waldron, Chris Rose, Trent McCuistian, Carl Ekdahl, Juan Barraza, and Dawn Chavez.

More Alumni Notes

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Jeffrey Vande Leest ’75 retired June 30, 2021.

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