Sigma Xi 125th Anniversary Interview

Edward A. Burke (SX 1960) 
Interviewed by Kathleen O'Brien (SX 2010)


In a large family full of a variety of interests, my grandfather, Edward A. Burke, has always been the more science inclined member of the family. Growing up, I remember detailed descriptions of the physics and chemistry behind any introductory school lesson I mentioned to him at family gatherings. I never put much thought into how he obtained his vast knowledge. I thought he was born knowing it, just like I was born not knowing it.

It wasn’t until high school, when a love of logic problems combined with a pining for New York City glamour led me to Columbia Engineering School, that I thought I might have had some of the ‘thirst for knowledge’ gene from my grandfather. Eventually, I earned a Masters in Engineering from MIT, and subsequently joined Sigma Xi. At the induction dinner, my grandfather, a fellow Sigma Xi member, flourished in conversation with professors and research scientists. During the dinner conversation, I learned that my grandfather had a long and winding history in science and engineering that I had never taken the time to learn, including work at the MIT nuclear reactor, radiation research, and researching with a number of notable institutions. A few months later, I heard of the Sigma Xi 125th Anniversary interview invitation, which gave me this opportunity.


Edward A. Burke was born in 1928 in Boston, Massachusetts. Ironically, it was the arts that first introduced him to critical thinking.

My earliest recollection was in kindergarten at about the age of five. We had been asked to weave a number of slats together and the teacher carefully showed us the right and wrong ways to do it. I busily went ahead until one of the students next to me said that I was doing it the wrong way. A check with the student on the other side yielded a similar result. I changed my procedure. The teacher then showed us we were all doing it wrong. That was an important lesson. Never again would I go along with the crowd.

Years later, in high school, Edward took advantage of a scholarship to the Museum of Fine Arts. He valued the courses, but more deeply valued the people that he met through the scholarship. The students he met introduced him to a wide array of subjects including art, science, music, foreign languages, and physics. The arts scholarship not only offered him an opportunity to work on his artistic talent, but also opened his eyes to the world around him in a way his family and childhood friends could not.

Edward was two to three years younger than most of his high school classmates and friends from the MFA program, and the age gap proved significant. He graduated high school at the age of 15 and at the time, many of his friends were 18 and eligible for the draft. In the early forties, Edward’s friends joined the Army, Navy, and Marines to serve in WWII. Too young to enlist, Edward instead applied to Northeastern University. His friends’ return from the war left a lasting impression that would influence his decisions in years to come.

Through Northeastern’s Coop program, Edward experienced his first engineering job at Arthur D. Little. At the time it was a small consulting company, where he worked on a variety of research projects. These included the development of a method to treat heavy wrapping paper for use in providing a waterproof cover for heavy equipment. He also worked on extracting protein from chicken feathers at Little. The protein was extruded into synthetic fibers for use in paint brushes.

Upon college graduation, Edward enlisted in the Air Force and served during the Korean War. Edward was inspired to enlist in the military after hearing the stories of his friends who returned from WWII.

They had all these great stories about being the first Americans troops in Paris and seeing different parts of the world. I felt left out. They were all involved in combat in Italy, France, Iwo Jima the South pacific etc. Also, at Northeastern the majority of the students had been in WWII in many activities such as bomber pilots (Ploesti oil fields) and Air Force navigators.

Just like the arts, being in the military shaped his scientific career in unlikely ways. Originally, Edward wanted to join the Navy to be an aircraft carrier pilot. When he went to enlist, the Navy told him he was two pounds overweight, and should come back in two weeks. Unimpressed with the attitude of the Naval doctor, Edward decided to enlist in the Air Force.

None of my friends were in the Air Force but there were plenty of combat films I watched and it seemed like the interesting thing to do at the time.

After enlisting, he applied for the Cadet Training Program, only to have his paper work lost three times in a row. He gave up after trying to join the program for about a year. Years later, when he was transferred to Gunter Air Force Base, they noticed his engineering degree and told him he was eligible for direct commission to become an officer.

Four weeks later I went from corporal to 2nd Lt. and was assigned to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio

Shortly after he arrived at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Edward married his high school sweet heart, Patricia Creed.

His first task with the Air Force, before becoming an officer and getting married, was to train both enlisted and officer personnel to use radiation detectors, conduct radiation field surveys, and use personal radiation detectors. At the time, the Korean War presented a real threat of nuclear warfare. Edward’s involvement in nuclear preparedness increased into surveying planes that had been through weapons clouds, training as a Health Physicist, and participating in a radiation effects program.

During his time in the Air Force, Edward was confronted with a number of radiation exposure problems. He describes the following:

One interesting problem had to do with the hazard associated with handling luminescent capsules containing curies of tritium. If a capsule ruptured would inhalation of the gas be lethal? My study indicated it would not be1. Other interesting studies involved the effect of cosmic rays on pilots of the U-2 spy plane (it flew at altitudes much higher than had been done before), the hazard of intense pulsed X-rays used to photograph volunteers in high G centrifuges, the hazards associated with testing reactor irradiated B-36 tires, with using thorium as an alloy material in aluminum, and personnel hazards in a radium dial paint shop.

At the radium dial paint shop at the Wright-Patterson base in Ohio, Edward tested personnel for radiation levels. He checked himself, as a control case, and found that he had higher radiation levels than anyone in the paint shop. He then realized it had come from handling Radium capsules to treat benign tumors in pilots who often flew in high altitudes. The capsules were supposedly sealed, but were used for some time. After handling these capsules, Edward and his colleagues would often smoke, getting the radiation exposure from their hands into their systems.

On Saturday Night Live they showed a skit on the nuclear family. When the lights were turned off everyone glowed in the dark. Your Aunt Kate [Edward’s second daughter] thought this was very funny given the radium incident.

By the late 1950s, Edward’s research turned to measuring radiation of all types, in order to measure the effects of radiation. An important aspect of these studies was the measurement of radiation spectra, particularly low energy X-ray spectra. The study involved an X-ray diffraction unit and a range of ionization chambers.

The technique of absorption analysis was used that employs the Laplace transform. This work resulted in my first journal paper2 and the results were ultimately published by the International Commission on Radiation Units (ICRU). The same mathematical technique was applied to thermal neutron beams in the new MIT nuclear reactor34.

By his mid thirties, Edward was at the forefront of the nuclear radiation effects field. After researching the measurement of radiation, he turned his focus to measuring damage due to nuclear radiation. At the time, the Air Force was interested in basic research, which involved measuring radiation damage to samples using resistance measurements at temperatures less than 10 degrees Kelvin.

His next endeavor was to apply the research that had been done. From 1965 to 1980, Edward worked with the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) to work on a problem of low energy emission from materials that had been exposed to intense pulses of X-rays or Gamma rays in the exo atmosphere from nuclear weapons. The research led itself into more research into the effects of enhanced radiation dose on hybrid materials including high atomic number and low atomic number materials. The dose enhancement effect was an important finding and is still relevant today.

We found that multicavity ionization chambers could be used to determine dose profiles in low Z and high Z materials. We also found that layers only a few microns thick were sufficient to produce a marked effect. The actual ionizing dose to low Z materials can exceed a factor of ten.5

From 1973 to 1991, Edward worked on a variety of projects such as ionizing noise in infra-red and optical sensors. This research answered the questions of the magnitude of noise as a function of the exposure, energy of the incident radiation and how detector design influences response. The modified theory of microdosimetry that was used to answer the research questions was also applied to a problem associated with detectors.

Edward became involved in Sigma Xi at around the same time he worked with the DNA. He joined the Hanscom Air Force Base chapter in 1961 after having two or three papers published. From 1977 to 1978 he was the president of his chapter and utilized his contacts to arrange speakers at his chapter bimonthly. At the time he was also a fellow at MIT and was able to arrange for a few MIT professors to speak.

One had become well known as an anti-military speaker and had developed a course on that subject at MIT. Another was in the forefront of developing solid state devices. A third had been involved in developing nuclear power plants.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the DNA was one of the chief supporters in applied radiation effects research. Edward’s research focused on the problems involving the emission of low energy electrons (<50 eV) from materials that had been exposed to intense pulses of X-rays or gamma rays emitted from nuclear weapons in the exo-atmosphere. An attempt by a previous research group had made little progress on the problem. They used a reductionist approach. Edward and his research group found that the low energy electron group was proportional to energy deposition by the energetic photons. The secondary electron characteristics could then be used to predict emission by Xrays or electron beams. The original research was of low energy electrons, but the research grew into high energy electrons. In 1985, there was talk of a possible beam weapons development by the Soviets. This involved the generation of high energy (50 MeV or more) particle beams of protons or possibly helium atoms. The beams could be used to destroy the electronics in satellites and incoming missiles. The research resulted in the NIEL (non ionizing energy loss) effect.

The NIEL effect allows one to correlate damage produced by high energy ions to neutron damage. This was originally developed to calculate the effectiveness of beam weapons relative to the radiation output of nuclear weapons in the exo-atmosphere. Part of the ‘Star wars program’. It was later used by the European Space Agency (ESA) to calculate damage produced by solar and galactic cosmic rays on satellite electronics and by the CERN group to estimate damage to detectors employed to study high energy particle interactions at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider).

Since the early 1990s, Edward has continued his research into the effects of radiation in the form of solar and galactic cosmic rays with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He has used a variety of techniques including wavelets and Fourier Transforms, Extreme Value Theory, and Hurst’s empirical law. Currently, he is using a combination of these methods and theories to find a way to predict radiation effects on satellites and spacecrafts.

From his early accomplishments with the MFA and the Air Force, to his latest accomplishments researching solar radiation, Edward Burke’s career has greatly influenced the field of radiation effects and continues to thrive. His lifetime of achievements has been documented individually in journals and mentioned in passing over the years, and cannot completely be covered in one interview. I’m glad I had an opportunity to formally interview my grandfather. I can now appreciate the breadth and depth of his lifetime of work.

1 Evaluation of the hazard associated with acute exposure to tritium gas.  E.A. Burke, Tech. Note WADC, 1955.

2 Absorption analysis of X-ray spectra produced by beryllium window tubes operated at 20 to 50 KVP.  E.A. Burke, R.M. Pettit, Radiation Research, 13, 271-285 (1960).

3 Derivation of thermal neutron spectra derived from transmission data. E.A. Burke, L.F. Lowe, Nucl. Instr. Methods, Vol 7, 193-196, 1960. 

4 Reflection correction for thermal neutron spectra derived from transmission data. E.A. Burke, L.F. Lowe, Nucl. Instr. Methods, Vol 24, 131-132, 1963

5 Quantifying low energy proton damage in multijunction solar cells, S.R. Messenger, E.A. Burke, R.J. Walters, J.H. Warner, G.P. Summers, J.R. Lorentzen, T.L. Morton, S.J. Taylor, Report NASA/CP – 2007-214494.