Eugene Wigner and the Structure of the Atomic Nucleus

Eugene Paul Wigner (1902-1995)

On November 17, 1902, Hungarian American theoretical physicist and mathematician Eugene Paul Wigner was born. He is best known for for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles for which he shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics with Maria Goeppert.
Wigner’s thesis Bildung und Zerfall von Molekülen (“Formation and Decay of Molecules”) was supervised by Michael Polanyi and contains the first theory of the rates of association and dissociation of molecules.

Having completed his doctorate, Wigner returned to Budapest to join his father’s tannery firm as planned. However, things did not go too well. Wigner’s father supported him taking the post in Berlin, where he accepted an offer from Karl Weissenberg at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Weissenberg wanted someone to assist him with his work on x-ray crystallography, and Polanyi had recommended Wigner. [2] Wigner received a request from Arnold Sommerfeld to work in Göttingen as an assistant to the great mathematician David Hilbert. This proved a disappointment, as Hilbert’s interests had shifted to logic. Wigner nonetheless studied independently. He laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics and in 1927 introduced what is now known as the Wigner D-matrix.

An offer to spend a term in Princeton saw him travel to the United States at the end of 1930. From 1930 to 1933 Wigner spent part of the year at Princeton, part at Berlin. His Berlin post vanished under the Nazi rules passed in 1933 and from then, except for the years 1936 1938 in Wisconsin, Wigner spent the rest of his career at Princeton.[2] In 1937, Wigner became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1939, it was Wigner, who introduced Leó Szilárd to Albert Einstein for a meeting that resulted in the Einstein-Szilárd letter which urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to initiate the Manhattan Project to develop atomic bombs. During the Manhattan Project, Wigner led a team that was to design the production nuclear reactors that would convert uranium into weapons gradeplutonium. At the time, reactors existed only on paper, and no reactor had yet gone critical. In July1942, Wigner chose a conservative 100 MW design, with a graphite neutron moderator and water cooling, which led to the successful development of the world’s first atomic reactor, Chicago Pile One (CP-1) that achieved a nuclear chain reaction in 1942.

In 1946, Wigner accepted a position as director of research and development at Clinton Laboratory (now Oak Ridge National Laboratory) in Oak Ridgen Tenn.. Not an administrator by background or temperament, Wigner left after a year and returned to teaching and research at Princeton University.[3] In 1963, Wigner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with American physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer and German physicist J. Hans D. Jensen, for work on the structure of the atomic nucleus. He professed to never have considered the possibility that this might occur, and he added: “I never expected to get my name in the newspapers without doing something wicked.Wigner also won the Enrico Fermi award in 1958, and the National Medal of Science in 1969. Near the end of his life, Wigner’s thoughts turned more philosophical. He became interested in the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, particularly its ideas of the universe as an all pervading consciousness. Eugene Paul Wigner died in Princeton on January 1, 1995.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a short video lecture by Tyler DeWitt on the ‘Atomic Structure: Discovery of the Neutron

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