Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Biographical Memoirs: Hans Bethe

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Biographical Memoirs: Hans Bethe

Article excerpt

2 JULY 1906 * 6 MARCH 2005

HANS BETHE was the last of the founding giants of modern quantum and nuclear physics. He was present at its creation and for more than seven decades contributed enormously to deepening our understanding of the physical nature of the earth. In 1967 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for explaining the nuclear processes leading to the burning in stars, including our sun, which sustains life on earth. He also played a major role in the development of the American atomic bomb as the head of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos during World War II. After World War II he became an important leader among the scientists who felt, and acted on, the responsibility of our community to help governments and societies understand the potential impact of those achievements on the human condition. As an adviser to the U.S. government at the highest levels and a participant in public forums he strove to ensure that consequences of scientific and technical advances-particularly in nuclear weapons and energy-were utilized toward peaceful and beneficial purposes.

Bethe, who died on 6 March 2005, was born in Strasbourg on 2 July 1906. Fired from his position in Tubingen in 1933 because of his mother's Jewish ancestry, he fled Nazi Germany, arriving in the United States to assume a professorship at Cornell University in 1935. He remained at Cornell throughout his life except for the years at Los Alamos working on the atomic bomb during World War II. After the war he maintained a continuing involvement in the laboratory's scientific and weapons work, including building the hydrogen bomb.

In addition to his great work explaining the energy production in the stars, Bethe made major contributions to many fields of physics. In particular his comprehensive articles on nuclear physics in the Reviews of Modern Physics in the late 1930s became widely known as the "Bethe Bible." He also contributed to fundamental advances in quantum electrodynamics, including the first approximate calculation of the Lamb Shift, which was the experimental discovery of the effect of radiative corrections on the spectrum of the hydrogen atom. In his later years, up until the very end of his life, Bethe collaborated with Gerald Brown, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, in advancing the theoretical understanding of the behavior of exploding supernovas and gamma ray bursters, the most energetic objects in the universe. Bethe was also widely recognized as an extraordinarily clear lecturer, as a superb mentor of graduate students and young research associates, and as the author of famous and enduring pedagogical physics articles that became standard references for many years.

In the years following World War II Bethe emerged as one of the most respected and influential voices among scientists speaking out and testifying in Congress on issues of grave policy importance concerning the impact of the new technologies spawned by the latest scientific progress on the human condition. Nuclear weapons were of special concern in this regard. Their enormous destructive potential posed a threat to civilization as we know it in the event of a nuclear war. He also studied, and became an outspoken supporter of, nuclear energy as a source of electrical power for civilian applications.

Bethe had an important, and at times decisive, impact on just about every major policy issue involving nuclear weapons that called for scientific and technical knowledge and judgment. He gave unstintingly of his enormous scientific talents to help the United States government make wise policy choices when it came to building a safe and reliable nuclear deterrent, to negotiating and verifying arms control treaties, or to understanding technical limits on complex systems. He approached technical problems with an open mind. His integrity, together with his extraordinary scientific knowledge, gave great credibility to his input in policy decisions, and made his advice to the government and his public testimony uniquely valuable. …

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