Nina Byers, a noted physicist who taught at UCLA and helped pave the way for more women in the field, passed away in her Santa Monica home on June 5 because of a hemorrhagic stroke. She was 84.
Byers joined UCLA’s Physics and Astronomy Department as an assistant professor in 1961, where she later worked as the department’s only female professor for more than 20 years. While the larger academic community respected Byers’ research in elementary particle physics, relatives and friends knew her as a warm and supportive person who tried to spend time with her family whenever she could.
“She had an amazing capacity to care. She had lifelong friends who knew her longer than I walked this Earth,” said Maggie Michaelson, a cousin of Byers.
Before arriving in Westwood, Byers studied at the University of Chicago under some of the leading figures in the physics world, such as Leo Szilard, one of the members of the research and development team that created the atomic bomb during World War II, said Steven Moszkowski, a professor emeritus in the UCLA Physics and Astronomy Department.
Moszkowski said he and Byers attended graduate school at the University of Chicago at the same time in 1951, then reconnected at UCLA when Byers accepted the faculty position and became good friends.
“She was a warm-hearted person (who cared) passionately about things she had an interest in,” Moszkowski said.
Byers was a leading figure in the study of elementary particle theory and superconductivity, a competitive field of physics during the ’70s and ’80s, Moszkowski said.
She achieved high stature in the international physics community during her tenure at UCLA, he added. While attending a conference in Germany in the early 1980s, Moszkowski said he went to a talk on particle resonance and heard the speaker mention just one person for her research contributions in the field – Byers.
“She was meticulous about her work and passionate about the strength (of) scientific standards,” Moszkowski said.
Lindley Winslow, an assistant professor in the physics and astronomy department, said Byers reached out to fellow female professors in the physics department to ensure they received a warm welcome and had a friend. She added that she saw Byers not only as a friend, but as a passionate mentor who looked for ways she could make the world a better place.
“She had spunk, but that does not have the right amount of seriousness attached to it,” Winslow said. “She was always the person to say, ‘We should do something about this.’”
At home, family members said Byers left her work at the office and focused on staying close with her relatives.
Michaelson said that after her grandmother passed away 14 years ago, Byers stepped into the role of a surrogate aunt for her.
“She kind of adopted people. She had such an amazing capacity to care and always wanted to help,” Michaelson said.
In 1996, Byers complied an online archive detailing women’s achievements in physics during the 20th century. She researched and wrote about the contributions of 83 women’s contributions in subfields including astrophysics, atomic molecular and optical physics, crystallography and nuclear physics.
Ten years later, Byers published a book, Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics. She served as the publication’s chief editor.
Moszkowski said he thinks the website was Byers’ most important work after her retirement because it showcases the achievements made by women physicists that people do not normally learn about in school.
The UCLA Physics and Astronomy department dedicated an annual lecture series, the Nina Byers Lectureship, in her honor after her retirement in 1993, Winslow said. Every year, the department hosts distinguished physicists to visit UCLA and give lectures to faculty, undergraduates and graduate students about general topics relating to physics.
Even after her retirement, Byers remained an active professor emeritus, teaching Fiat Lux seminars about the history of modern physics and women’s role in the field, Moszkowski said.
“She loved learning, and never stopped,” Michaelson said.
As a part of Byers’ final wishes, her ashes will be interned at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica in early autumn. There will also be a memorial service for her there in the fall.