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Gordon Danby dead at 86; helped invent magnetic levitation train

Gordon Danby, a longtime Brookhaven National Laboratory physicist

Gordon Danby, a longtime Brookhaven National Laboratory physicist who invented superconducting magnetic levitation trains and made advancements in MRI technology, died Aug. 2, 2016. He was 86. Credit: Danby family

As a physicist who specialized in magnet technology, Gordon Danby helped invent the first superconducting magnetic levitation train and was integral in some of the most significant MRI advancements.

It wasn’t just his formidable intelligence that led to the breakthroughs, said James Powell, Danby’s longtime friend and colleague who teamed with him to develop the superconducting “maglev” train.

“He had what I call ‘wonder-lust,’” Powell said. “Not wanderlust. He wondered about things: how to do it better, and was always striving for that.”

Danby, a longtime Wading River resident who worked at nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory, died Aug. 2 at Stony Brook University Hospital. He was 86, and had lived in recent years at an East Setauket assisted living center.

Born in Canada, Danby was raised on his grandparents’ farm after developing rickets as a young child. He got his bachelor’s degree in physics and math from Carleton University in Ottawa and a nuclear physics doctorate from Montreal’s McGill University.

With his skills in demand after World War II, Danby took a job at Brookhaven Lab in 1957. He met his wife, Jane, on Long Island, raising two children, Jennifer and Judd, in a historic Wading River home.

“He was for experiences that would give you pride and humility,” said Jennifer Danby, 52, of Long Beach, citing her father’s early health issues as forming his perspective. “He was never — and I’m not just making a romantic memory — programmed to the negative.”

At Brookhaven, Danby aided design and construction of the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron, or AGS, which was, upon its debut in 1960, the world’s largest particle accelerator.

But he was most known for the superconducting maglev train, which he and Powell invented in the early 1960s after Powell had the idea one day while stuck in terrible traffic.

“It couldn’t have been done without him,” said Powell, who also worked at Brookhaven Lab in Upton. “He was the real expert in superconductors.”

Danby and Powell for years would spend their free time working on the concept, writing dozens of research papers and attending countless conferences to promote what they saw as a safe, high-speed way to transform modern commercial transportation. In the 1980s, then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-New York) led a task force on superconducting maglev trains, but federal funding was never sufficient to lead to successful development in the United States.

Still, a working prototype was completed in Japan, and Danby and Powell pursued privately funded efforts to build a test track for the train in Florida. The two men received the Franklin Institute medal in 2000 for their scientific work.

Danby retired from Brookhaven in 1999. His later work with Melville-based Fonar Corp. helped lead to stand-up, open MRI machines.

“He was, in my estimate, the world leader in MRI design,” said Powell, 84, of Ridge.

Jennifer Danby said her father, who also sat on the Wading River school board, always separated his work in science and the accompanying funding frustrations with family life.

“He never brought his stress home; there was never negativity,” she said. “I saw him never give up, but I also saw him not make himself crazy when he couldn’t control something.”

Gordon Danby is also survived by his wife and his son, Judd, of Lafayette, Indiana. Memorial and cremation services were held earlier this week.

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