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Remembering Glenn Knoll (1935-2014)

University of Michigan Nuclear Engineering Emeritus faculty and award-winning teacher, engineer and researcher, Glenn Knoll was remembered at a memorial program Monday, June 9.| Medium Read

University of Michigan Nuclear Engineering Emeritus faculty and award-winning teacher, engineer and researcher, Glenn Knoll was remembered at a memorial program Monday, June 9 at the Michigan League on the campus of the University of Michigan. Hundreds of colleagues, former students, friends, and family honored his contribution to the world of science and a legacy that will continue to impact the study of radiation measurement, Knoll’s passion, for generations to come.

EnlargeFriends, family, and colleagues gather to remember Glenn Knoll
IMAGE:  Friends, family, and colleagues gather to remember Glenn Knoll, professor emeritus of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences. Photo: Kate Joyce

It seemed appropriate that many attendees of the Symposium on Radiation Measurements and Applications, who were registering down the hall, filtered in to the memorial to learn about the man who founded that event almost 50 years ago.  Most had never met him but all knew who he was, as did everyone in the nuclear measurements and detection fields, whether they be in academia, government, research labs or private industry.

Changing lives

“Glenn Knoll changed my life and my family’s lives forever,” remembered Valentin Jordanov, a native of Bulgaria and former Knoll student. “He pulled me from behind the Iron Curtain. He believed in me even though at the time my English wasn’t very good. He was an example of integrity and a teacher of life.” Jordanov now owns his own radiation detection company and consults. Recently he opened an art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico and his regret is that his mentor was never able to visit it.

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IMAGE:  Family of Glenn Knoll. Photo: Kate Joyce

James Baciak, now chair of the Nuclear Engineering program at the University of Florida, was a student of Knoll’s in the 90s. “Dr. Knoll was one of two people who were influential to me as a young undergraduate. I sat down with him when he was department chair and told him I wanted to study plasma space propulsion. He told me I was wrong, that what I wanted to study was nuclear measurement because of all the fields I would study in that program. He said I would become the perfect engineer. And he was right. His advice also led me to meet my wife. So, you could say my career and happiness are due to Dr. Knoll.”

In 1979 Knoll published his enduring textbook, Radiation Detection and Measurement, which Amazon describes as “the resource that engineers turn to in the study of radiation detection.” And in its fourth edition it is still the standard used in Nuclear Engineering programs. It was that book that Ronald Gilgenbach, chair of the Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences department and the Chihiro Kikuchi Collegiate Professor at the University of Michigan, saw in the MIT bookstore that changed the course of his career.

“I was considering applying to the University of Michigan for a faculty position. I admit that I didn’t know a lot about U-M or the Nuclear Engineering department, but when I saw a shelf-full of Glenn Knoll’s new book, that made a big impact on me. I applied for the position and got to interview with Dr. Knoll himself…Glenn was one of the pillars in the foundation of the Nuclear Engineering department at U-M. When the department was founded, there was no well-defined field of nuclear measurements. Glenn invented the field with his own pioneering research, culminating in the publication of his classic book.”

A playful man of innumerable talents

Rarely does a man come along who is a brilliant as Knoll and yet has the great sense to have fun. During the memorial program the attendees learned about his talent for fencing, his enjoyment for traveling all over the world, his love of music and singing in a glee club and his sense of adventure with his cars and motorcycles.

“One day Gladys (Glenn Knoll’s wife) called me and offered me her place with Glenn at the U-M football game because she couldn’t make it. The only stipulation was that I had to ride to the stadium on the back of his Harley Davidson motorcycle. I opted to stay home that day,” laughs Sister Judith Vanderveen a Sister of Mercy nun and friend of the Knoll family.

“He pulled me from behind the Iron Curtain. He believed in me even though at the time my English wasn’t very good. He was an example of integrity and a teacher of life.”

-Valentin Jordanov, former student

In talking with former colleagues and students it became clear that Knoll had a playful, competitive spirit. He played softball on the Nuclear Nine, (a solid third baseman) and had a passion for paddleball and racquetball. He also enjoyed a monthly game of poker.

Clair Sullivan, a former PhD student of Knoll’s, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois-Champaign, remembers attending an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) conference in Portland, Oregon with him. “After an exhausting day at the conference Dr. Knoll wanted to play poker. So we used toothpicks for chips and even though he might like to say he won, I remember one of his students winning. But on the golf course, he always won.”

A Renaissance man who left a legacy

Knoll was a world leader in nuclear measurement and detection. His research forwarded the field to a level of new understanding and he mentored 26 PhD students who have also added significantly to new discoveries, and education. His longtime friend and college roommate, Paul Plummer, says that at an early age it was evident that, “Glenn Knoll was capable of understanding everything.”

He also gave the world three talented sons: Thomas, John, and Peter. “My father encouraged curiosity and creative expression,” said Tom. “There were several hobbies that he and I did together: model-making, still photography, making furniture, electronics and computer programming. Most of those hobbies had an impact on my future.” Tom Knoll is one of the developers of the popular software, Photoshop. “I am immensely proud of his contribution to science and his commitment to the University of Michigan. He loved this place!”

Knoll’s youngest son Peter added that his father’s legacy would be his absolute devotion to improving society.

Former president of the University of Michigan and colleague of Knoll’s James Duderstadt said, “Glenn Knoll left his legacy for science with a half century of world leadership in nuclear measurement But he was also fun-loving and kind, he took young faculty and graduate students under his wing.”

It’s been said often that many people have built entire careers out of Knoll’s ideas in fields such as nuclear medicine, oil exploration, radiography, nuclear physics, homeland security, and environmental stewardship.

“Glenn’s absolute integrity and uncompromising standards of excellence have deeply impacted all of us,” said Gilgenbach. And by all of us, he means the world.

Friends, family, and colleagues gather to remember Glenn Knoll
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