Friday, February 9, 2024

Robert Kemp Adair (1924–2020)—Notes on a Friendship

Robert Adair.
Robert Adair.
Photo credit: Michael Marsland/Yale University.

I try to write obituaries of scientists who appear in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, but for some reason I didn’t write about Robert Adair’s death in 2020. Perhaps the covid pandemic over-shadowed his demise. In Chapter 9 of IPMB, Russ Hobbie and I cite seven of his publications. He was a leader in studying the health effects (or, lack of heath effects) from electric and magnetic fields.

Recently, I read a charming article subtitled “Notes on a Friendship” about Adair, written by Geoffrey Kabat, the author of Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks. I have Getting Risk Right on my to-read list. It sounds like my kind of book.

I admire Adair’s service in an infantry rifle platoon during World War II. I loved his book about baseball. I respect his independent assessment of the seriousness of climate change, although I don’t agree with all his conclusions. He certainly was a voice of reason in the debate about health risks of electric and magnetic fields. He led a long and useful life. We need more like him.

I will give Kabat the final word, quoting the last paragraph of his article.
In early October 2020, Bob’s daughter Margaret called me to tell me that Bob had died. I looked for an obituary in the New York Times, and was shocked when none appeared, likely due to the increased deaths from the pandemic. I wrote to an epidemiologist colleague and friend, who knew Bob’s work on ELF-EMF [extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields] and microwave energy, and who had served on a committee to assess possible health effects of the Pave Paws radar array on Cape Cod. My friend Bob Tarone wrote back, “Very sad to hear that. Adair was not directly involved in the Pave Paws study, but we relied heavily on his superb published papers on the biological effects of radio-frequency energy in our report. He and his wife were superb scientists. Losing too many who don’t seem to have competent replacements. Too bad honesty and truth are in such short supply in science today.” He concurred that there should have been an obituary in the Times.

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