Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book Review: The Recollections of Eugene Wigner

The recollections of Eugene P. Wigner as told to Andrew Szanton

Wigner, E. Paul, & Szanton, A. (1992). The recollections of Eugene P. Wigner as told to Andrew Szanton. New York: Plenum Press.
Eugene Wigner, one of the great physicists of the 20th century, was one of the leaders in the application of quantum mechanics to atomic, nuclear, and solid state physics. His story begins in Hungary, where he was one of the group that included von Neumann, von Karman, Teller, and Szilard that came out of the remarkable Hungarian educational system circa 1920. Out of family loyalty, Wigner got his Ph. D. in chemical engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin in the mid '20s, with the intent of succeeding his father running a tanning factory in Budapest. However, while in Berlin he attended the Thursday afternoon colloquium at the German Physical Society where he was exposed, in the presence of luminaries such as Einstein and Planck, to the remarkable advances in physics taking place at that time. After getting his Ph. D., he indeed returned to Budapest to work in the factory but the appeal of physics was too strong and he left Hungary to pursue physics, with great effect. 

Wigner's first major contribution to physics was his pioneering book "Group Theory and its Application to the Quantum Mechanics of Atomic Spectra". It is amazing that someone with essentially no formal training in physics could produce such an influential piece of work. His rapidly developing reputation gave him the opportunity to leave Europe in the early '30s for Princeton, who, astonishingly, did not give him tenure despite one pioneering discovery after another. He was hired by Wisconsin, where he and Breit did path-breaking work on nuclear resonances. "It was at Wisconsin that my deepest love for this country was born. In Wisconsin, I truly became an American." Here he met and married his first wife, who tragically died soon after. He was able to deal with the pain and grief by returning to Princeton, which had in the meantime seen the error of its ways. 

The book continues with the story of his role in the Manhattan project, Wigner's leadership in the development of nuclear power after the war, and his later career including the 1963 Nobel Prize. But what is most interesting about these memoirs is Wigner the person. He comes across as quite humble and gentle--not the typical characteristics associated with highly accomplished people. He is candid about his extremely conservative political views, and about his relationships with people like Teller, Oppenheimer, and Szilard. But even when he is critical of these people, he goes out of his way to commend their positive qualities as well. 

Despite being essentially self-taught in physics, Wigner is quite generous in giving credit to those who influenced him, in particular to his mentor, the physical chemist Michael Polanyi. Of him he says, "His finest gift was to encourage my work in physics, and this he did with all of his very great heart. In all my life, I have never known anyone who used encouragement as skillfully as Polanyi. He was truly an artist of praise". A point to ponder for all of us involved in education. Fascinating memoirs of a great man.

Submitted by Thad Walker

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