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Daniel Cooper, 80, scientist with a love of written word

Daniel Isaac Cooper was a nuclear physicist with the soul of a poet. While his heroes were Albert Einstein and nuclear scientists Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, he quoted Walter Whitman and wrote love poems to his wife.

His son, Jonathan, of Portland, Maine, said his father was particularly fond of one line from Whitman's ``Miracles": `Every cubic inch of space is a miracle."

``Dad agreed with Whitman's view that everything in life is a miracle on all levels," he said.

For all his scientific knowledge and his degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Cooper did not lord it over others, longtime friend Abraham Bunis of Maplewood, N.J., said yesterday. He loved to share his knowledge with everyone.

``Dan had command of the sciences and could make that knowledge understandable to the layman," Bunis said. ``He was never haughty. He never celebrated himself or the work he did. Rather he would celebrate others through the work he did. He was an Everyman."

Dr. Cooper, author of a book about Fermi, who worked on the development of the first nuclear reactor, died Thursday at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge of a heart attack. He was 80 and lived at The Cambridge Homes, an assisted-living facility in Cambridge.

``Dad was a very kind man, always willing to help people," said his son Matthew of Washington, D.C. ``If traffic were tied up, he would get out of his car and direct it himself."

One of Dr. Cooper's most trying times, Bunis said, came when Matthew, a Time magazine reporter, was threatened with jail for refusing to reveal his source in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case.

While Dr. Cooper earned his bachelor and doctoral degrees from MIT, he spent most of his adult life in New Jersey, returning to Cambridge seven years ago after the death of his first wife. ``Dad never forgot about Cambridge and always kept a connection to MIT," his son said.

Although Dr. Cooper might have applied his knowledge of nuclear physics as a researcher, he chose to write about it instead. He wanted to share his knowledge, Bunis said, particularly with young people. Dr. Cooper's book, ``Enrico Fermi and the Revolutions of Modern Physics," published by Oxford University Press in 1999, was written for the layman and was particularly popular among high school students, Bunis said.

In New Jersey when they both lived there, Bunis recalled that Dr. Cooper volunteered to tutor school children in mathematics and science. ``Dan's doctoral thesis at MIT was on the scattering of protons and low-energy fields, and he could make even that understandable to lay persons," Bunis said. ``Dan would lecture in the community at the drop of a hat about these esoteric subjects and make them understandable."

He said that about a dozen years ago, Dr. Cooper suffered cranial bleeding that left him susceptible to seizures. ``Dan found himself unable to to read and find the correct word to speak," Bunis said. ``He made it a kind of an odyssey in his life to overcome this aphasia."

With Dr. Cooper's determination and the help of Bunis and a friend cryptologist, the three created a Scrabble game that worked for Dr. Cooper.

At The Cambridge Homes, Dr. Cooper took yoga classes and was a standout in the residence's poetry workshop. ``He was very soulful, very loving, with a great sense of humor," said Lisa Lambert, program director there. His last poem was for the homes' departing yoga teacher, ``Yoga Poem (for Shelly)."

Dr. Cooper was born in the Bronx, New York, the son of Israel and Elizabeth Cooper, Russian immigrants and ``fervent Zionists," Matthew Cooper said. He first came to Cambridge in 1943 as a college student and earned his bachelor of science degree from MIT in 1946 at age 20. He served in the Navy as an assistant to Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Forces, before returning to Cambridge to work for his doctoral degree in nuclear physics, which he received in 1952.

``It was the dawn of the atomic age, and my father was in awe of the power of nature," Matthew said in a statement. ``Like his heroes Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, he was frightened by its consequences."

In 1950, Dr. Cooper married Bette Gelula, whom he had known from the Bronx.

Dr. Cooper worked in research and development for Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. When he left applied research, he became managing editor of the publication Nucleonics, in New York City. Then he became executive editor and, later, publisher of International Science & Technology, also in New York.

For nearly a decade, he worked in the continuing education division of McGraw-Hill Co. before starting Cooper Communications in 1973. After Mrs. Cooper died in 1995, Dr. Cooper ``considered moving back to Cambridge, where he had always felt at home," Matthew said.

Dr. Cooper met Doris Tanner, a clinical psychologist from Medford, through a North Cambridge hairdresser they each patronized. ``We had never met at the salon," Tanner said. ``Dan had mentioned to the hairdresser that he was lonely. I happened to tell her about my lonely weekend." The hairdresser brought them together.

Much of the poetry Dr. Cooper wrote since he and Tanner married in 2004 is about her. She remembered him singing an original greeting to her whenever they were separated. It said, ``You are never away from your place in my heart, for that is the place where these loving thoughts start."

Besides his wife and two sons, Dr. Cooper leaves a daughter, Ellen Epworth of South Woodstock, Vt.; three stepchildren, Erik Moe of Amsterdam; Nelson Moe of New York City, and Martin Moe of Washington, D.C.; two sisters, Anita Smith of Livingston, N.J, and Terry Sadin of New Hyde Park, N.Y.; four grandchildren and six stepgrandchildren.

A memorial service will be held 11 a.m. today at MIT Chapel in Cambridge. Interment will be at a later date on Martha's Vineyard.

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