Olbert fought with the Polish underground during World War II, came to MIT on a scholarship to earn his doctorate, and, as a member of MIT’s Space Plasma Group, was one of the pioneer theorists of the space age. He specialized in the understanding of the solar wind, the streams of atomic particles flowing outward from the sun. He participated in, and brought insight to, the measurements of the solar wind with instruments on several NASA space missions, including the Voyager missions to the outer planets and interstellar space.
Born in 1923, Olbert was raised by his widowed mother in a small village in Eastern Poland. He showed early academic promise, and, during the Russian occupation of 1939 to 1941, he concentrated in math and physics under Russian teachers. Under the subsequent German occupation of 1941, however, his studies were interrupted. He was forced to work as a mason, and later, because he spoke German, as a bookkeeper on a German-run farm. He secretly shared information about German-bound food shipments for later interception by the Polish underground.
In 1944, he fought in the Warsaw uprising and, at the surrender, was taken prisoner by the Germans. At the war’s end, Olbert was declared a “displaced person” and enrolled at the University of Munich to resume his studies in math and physics. He earned a scholarship to the doctoral program of MIT’s Department of Physics in 1949. With the Cosmic Ray Group led by Professor Bruno Rossi, he earned his doctorate in 1953, became an assistant professor in 1957, and became full professor in 1967; he retired in 1988.
Photo: MIT Department of Physics
“ World War II in Poland and in the Pacific Theater”