Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Frederick Seitz

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Frederick Seitz

Article excerpt

4 JULY 1911 * 2 MARCH 2008

FREDERICK SEITZ was a brilliant scientist. He was one of the founders of the field that became known as the physics of condensed matter; a wise and insightful leader of academic and scientific organizations; an influential spokesman for science nationally and internationally; a trusted counselor and adviser of many organizations. His contributions to the field of solid-state physics, to the National Academy of Sciences, and to Rockefeller University were transformative. Ever alert, he used his influence to help many scientists at crucial stages of their careers. He died in New York on 2 March 2008.

I met Fred in 1949, when we both joined the faculty of the Department of Physics of the University of Illinois, he as research professor, and I as a brand-new Ph.D. with the rank of instructor. Although he was only thirty-eight years old, he was already a famous scientist. He had been elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1946, and he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences just two years later. He was deeply and actively involved in solidstate physics. Fred had a profound effect on my scientific career. I take the liberty of telling a few of those personal aspects in this memoir. In preparing this memorial, I have drawn on many of his writings, especially his 415-page autobiography, On the Frontier: My Life in Science.1 I have also been enlightened by a DVD recording of the memorial symposium in Fred's honor held at the Rockefeller University in February 2009, kindly made available by Fred's good friend and colleague Purnell Choppin. Ralph Simmons, Andy Granato, and Ned Goldwasser, three of Fred's colleagues at Illinois, have written a memorial article about Fred Seitz for Physics Today.1


Fred was born in San Francisco. In his autobiography, he writes, "The date was July 4, 1911, the year in which Rutherford discovered the atomic nucleus, Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity, and Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Chinese monarchy and established a republic." In this one sentence, he captures many qualities his friends enjoyed about him: setting the event in a larger context, mentioning some history of science, and, I suspect, delivering the message with a twinkle in his eye since the reader was supposed to grasp that he is poking fun at himself by associating his birth with these great events.

He describes the neighborhood in which he grew up, with its mixture of ethnic groups and strong family traditions, with great warmth and affection. His father, after whom he was named, was born in 1876 in Germany. Owing to a family financial misfortune, his father was unable to go to college. Rather, he was apprenticed at age fourteen to a Viennese-style pastry baker in Heidelberg for three years, and later for two more years in Innsbruck. At age nineteen, he came to America, settling initially in New York. Ten years later, he was in San Francisco, where eventually he set up his own bakery. Fred's mother was born in San Francisco in 1883. She had a large extended family in the area. Although his father was serious and on occasion stern, Fred speaks of his parents as strong and loving.

Fred attended Lick-Wilmerding High School. The school had two curricular pathways, trade and college-bound. But during the first two years, all students took the same courses, including mechanical and freehand drawing and shop (masonry, tin smithing, and various sorts of woodworking). He writes, "While a program of this type was acceptable to West Coast colleges and universities, it would have been regarded as inadequate at one of the elite eastern private universities." He reports that it was held against him when he applied for graduate school at Princeton. He adds, "I believe that the continual downgrading of the status of hands-on technology of those institutions, with the admitted exception of computer use and programming, may provide additional signs of a form of national decay. …

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