Benjamin Shen, physics and astronomy
Benjamin Shih-Ping Shen, Reese W. Flower Professor Emeritus in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the School of Arts and Sciences and Penn’s acting provost from 1980 to 1981, died at his home on April 10. He was 90 years old.
Dr. Shen was born in 1931 in Hangzhou, China. He graduated from a French high school in Shanghai and briefly studied engineering at National Taiwan University. In 1954, he earned a degree in mathematics from Assumption College (now University) in Worcester, Massachusetts, where most of his classes were taught in French. After obtaining a master’s degree in physics from Clark University, he obtained a national DSc in physics from the University of Paris in 1964 under Pierre Auger, discoverer of the Auger electron. Dr. Shen joined the Penn faculty in 1966 as an associate professor of astronomy, becoming a full professor in 1968, and the Reese W. Flower Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics in 1972. He served as chairman of the astronomy department and of astrophysics from 1973 to 1979. While chair of the department, the name of the department was changed from astronomy to astronomy and astrophysics, reflecting a broadening of research interests in the department. From 1968, Dr. Shen served as director of Penn’s Flower and Cook Observatory. During the 1970s and 1980s, he served on several committees of the Faculty Senate and the University Council.
In 1979, Dr. Shen was appointed Associate Provost by Vartan Gregorian, then Provost. The following year he was appointed acting provost following the resignation of Dr. Gregorian (Almanac October 14, 1980). During his tenure as acting provost, Dr. Shen oversaw a restructuring of Penn’s higher education and convened the Teaching Quality Task Force, which led to the creation of new college awards. teaching in Penn Schools. In 1981, Dr. Shen resigned as acting provost, but continued to lead the task force he had started. During the 1980s he continued to serve on Penn’s governance bodies, and in 1993 he served on President Sheldon Hackney’s Commission on Strengthening the University Community. Dr. Shen retired from Penn in 1996. Upon retirement, he served as the second president of the Penn Association of Senior and Emeritus Faculty (PASEF).
A pioneer in the use of particle accelerators for astrophysical research, Dr. Shen’s scientific work has focused on the cascade of nuclear interactions triggered by cosmic rays, high-energy particles that travel through space at a speed close to that of light. He was the first to show, in 1961, that the rupture, or “spallation”, of interstellar nuclei by cosmic rays could be the long-sought origin of certain rare chemical elements in the universe. His accelerator experiments greatly influenced the science of cosmic ray shielding in the early space age; in 1963, the magazine Astronautica Acta devotes an entire issue to his work. He also contributed to the first research on the explosive nuclei of galaxies and quasars. He has edited and contributed to the writing of two books on nuclear astrophysics: High-energy nuclear reactions in astrophysics (1967) and Spallation nuclear reactions and their applications (1976), and has authored numerous peer-reviewed articles.
In addition to his work at Penn, Dr. Shen has been actively engaged with the wider scientific community. In 1972 he was appointed to head a committee of the New York Academy of Sciences to improve science communication to the general public, and the same year he was made a Fellow of the American Physical Society. As part of this effort, in a 1975 essay, he introduced the concept of “civic science literacy”, the basic scientific knowledge needed by the general public and policy makers in an increasingly technological society.
In 1990, he was appointed to the National Science Council, where he was a strong advocate for basic science funding and where he chaired a task force on science literacy. He was an advisor to the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) on its science programs, including the award-winning series 3-2-1 Contact. He became an advisor on science and technology to the Senate Budget Committee (1976-1977) and the Congressional Technology Assessment Office (1977-1978). In 1978, he received the Vermeil Medal from the Society for the Encouragement of Progress. In the late 1970s he chaired a national panel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1996 he was made a Fellow of the AAAS. In 1993, he was named Knight of the Order of Academic Palms in France.
In his spare time, Dr. Shen practiced Chinese calligraphy and built bicycles for himself and his children with vintage parts he found online.
Dr. Shen is survived by his wife, Lucia Shen; his son William Shen; his daughter, Juliet Shen (Shane Watters); and a granddaughter. A funeral mass was held April 21 at St. Agatha-St. James Catholic Church in Philadelphia, followed by interment at Woodlands Cemetery. Donations in his memory may be made to Philly PAWS.