Skip to main content
Select Source:

Wigner, Eugene Paul (Jenó Pál)

WIGNER, EUGENE PAUL (JENó PáL)

(b. Budapest, Hungary, 17 November 1902;

d. Princeton, New Jersey, 1 January 1995), quantum physics and chemistry, mathematics, nuclear engineering.

Wigner lived a long and productive life. Born in Hungary, Wigner received most of his formal university training in chemistry in Germany, at the same time training himself in physics and mathematics. From this beginning Wigner made numerous important cross-disciplinary contributions, first in Europe and later in the United States, where he spent most of his adult life. Wigner demonstrated the importance of symmetry principles in quantum mechanics, an accomplishment that led to the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1963. Wigner made numerous other contributions to a wide variety of fields. In particular, he was one of the first to apply quantum mechanics to the theory of solids and chemical kinetics, led the World War II effort to design the first high-powered reactors and made numerous other contributions to reactor engineering, and pioneered work in the quantum theory of chaos. Throughout his long career, Wigner trained more than forty doctoral students in theoretical physics as a Princeton University professor and acted as a statesman, lobbying in particular for civil defense. Later in life, even as he continued his scientific and political work, he also turned his talents to the philosophy of science.

The Early Years. Wigner was born on 17 November 1902 to an upper-middle-class, mostly Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. Eugene was one of three children born to Erzsébet and Antal Wigner; Antal managed a leather tanning factory and Erzsébet was a devoted housewife and mother. Eugene’s tranquil childhood in Budapest was interrupted by World War I, and his managerial-class family was subsequently compelled to flee to Austria for most of 1919, when Hungary fell to communist control.

Although both parents were Jewish, Judaism was not practiced strictly in the home. As an adolescent Wigner received religious education from a local rabbi as well as a priest. Although he prepared for his bar mitzvah at thirteen, later in his teens his family converted to Lutheranism.

Wigner attended a Lutheran high school, where he received solid training in Hungarian literature and language, Latin, history, mathematics, and religion; he received less rigorous training in physics and chemistry. During these years, as his love of mathematics and physics took root, he was known as an excellent but not brilliant student. He also got to know a student in the class one year behind his, Jancsi (Johnny) von Neumann, who would later become a close friend.

Beginning in Europe. When Wigner graduated from high school as a top student in 1920, he was well read in mathematics and physics and wanted a career in the latter field. However, prospects for obtaining a physics professorship in Hungary were poor; Hungary had only three such positions at the time, and Wigner was at a competitive disadvantage in pursuing any sort of academic position due to his Jewish descent. At the same time, Wigner’s father argued that the only practical course was to take chemical engineering as preparation to join the family tanning business. Thus, Wigner began his university career in chemistry, enrolling for one year at the Technical Institute in Budapest and then, in 1921, transferring to Technische Hochschule in Berlin.

Alongside his chemistry course work, Wigner studied physics and mathematics on his own during the next three years. It was an exciting time in physics, and Wigner was in a position to see firsthand the transformation that came with the emerging understanding of quantum mechanics. The University of Berlin attracted many who were making history. Wigner particularly enjoyed a Thursday afternoon colloquium. Regular attendants included Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Max von Laue, and Walther Nernst; Wolfgang Pauli and Werner Heisenberg sometimes joined the discussion. It was at this colloquium that Wigner met other, younger men, including fellow Hungarians Edward Teller and Leo Szilard.

During his third year in Berlin, Wigner began working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in the suburb of Dahlem. It was there that he met Michael Polanyi, a physical chemist who was also a native of Budapest. Polanyi agreed to be Wigner’s thesis advisor for a doctoral dissertation in chemical engineering that contained the first theory of rates of disassociation and association of molecules.

After receiving his doctoral degree in 1925, the twenty-two-year-old Wigner dutifully returned home to Budapest to help his father at the tannery. Not satisfied with the work, however, after a year he happily accepted an assistantship set up by Polanyi with the x-ray crystallographer Karl Weissenberg at the University of Berlin.

Recognizing Wigner’s fine command of mathematics, Weissenberg assigned him a problem that required an exploration of the elementary aspects of group or symmetry theory. Since he was also well-versed in the new physics of the time, Wigner soon realized the vast potential of applying symmetry theory to quantum mechanics. Using the tools of group theory, Wigner was able to derive many rules for atomic spectra following from the existence of rotational symmetry.

After a few months, Weissenberg made arrangements for Wigner to work with Richard Becker, who had recently been given a chair at the university in theoretical physics. In 1927 Becker, in turn, suggested that Wigner work with David Hilbert, a highly distinguished mathematician at the University of Göttingen. Hilbert became ill and retreated from professional work, leaving Wigner without formal responsibilities. Wigner’s time in Göttingen was hardly unproductive, however. He formed friendly ties with James Franck and collaborated with Victor Weisskopf, who was then a student, on a paper on spectral line shape. In addition, at the suggestion of Szilard, Wigner began a book, Group Theory and Its Application to Quantum Mechanics(1931), which became famous. By the time he left Göttingen, Wigner had firmly launched a career in science. Not only had he begun the book that would make his name, but he had started the line of research that would later lead to the Nobel Prize.

The Young American Professor. Wigner returned to Berlin in 1928 to work on his book, which was published in 1931, and continue his research. While there he

received a letter from Princeton University in New Jersey that opened a new chapter in his life. Princeton offered a lectureship in mathematical physics. Although the position was half-time and temporary, the salary was relatively enormous—at seven hundred dollars per month, the pay was more than eight times what Wigner had received in Germany. The unusual offer came because John von Neumann had been offered a full-time tenured faculty position at Princeton but was reluctant to cut his ties in Europe, despite the growing wave of anti-Semitism. To get his foot in the U.S. door while preserving an exit strategy, he asked the Princeton administration to allow himself and Wigner to share an appointment. Princeton agreed, with the proviso that Wigner would not have tenure.

The end result was that in 1930, both von Neumann and Wigner joined the Princeton faculty. For the next three years both young scientists split their time between Europe and Princeton, until the rising tide of Nazism ended their transatlantic crisscrossings. The half-time Princeton arrangement was extended until 1936; von Neumann subsequently joined the faculty of the newly created Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton.

Wigner decided to emigrate permanently and on 8 January 1937 became a U.S. citizen. The previous fall Wigner, disappointed that he had not been given tenure and a promotion, took a leave of absence from Princeton and accepted an acting professorship arranged by Gregory Breit at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

In his first eight years in America, Wigner conducted research in a wide range of topics in physics and chemistry. During this intensely productive period he made advances in three subfields of physics.

Wigner’s contribution to solid-state physics began at Princeton and continued at Madison. Working with Frederick Seitz, his first graduate student, he found ways to connect aspects of solid-state physics to quantum mechanics. A prime example was the development of a wave function for metallic sodium’s ground state. When the results of this work were combined with calculations made by Wigner on a gas of free electrons, quantum mechanics could be used to derive the binding energy (or energy of sublimation) of the metal from fundamentals. This line of inquiry was expanded upon by Wigner and various students, including John Bardeen.

Wigner also made major contributions to theoretical nuclear physics at its earliest stage. Shortly after the discovery of the neutron in 1932 and the subsequent understanding that atomic nuclei are built from protons and neutrons, he investigated a number of related topics, including early measurements of deuteron properties, neutron-proton scattering, and the internucleon force and its symmetry properties. His work with nuclear forces led to the conclusion that there were four types of such forces, depending on whether they allow for exchange of electric charge and/or spin between neutrons and protons. The force that allows neither exchange came to be known as the Wigner force. Later in the decade Wigner and others, including Eugene Feenberg, developed supermultiplet theory, which employed spatial symmetry to help describe nuclear states. In addition, while at Wisconsin, Wigner worked with Breit to develop a tool still standard in nuclear theory: the Breit-Wigner formula for the reaction cross section in terms of nuclear parameters.

Wigner also made important contributions to the development of relativistic quantum mechanics. In a 1939 paper, “On Unitary Representations of the Inhomogeneous Lorentz Group,” he set his sights on the homogeneous Lorentz group, a group involving time-dependent symmetries (or symmetry groups) that also include time-translation invariance. In his analysis of its irreducible representations, he was able to provide a complete classification of all the elementary particles that were then known.

In Madison, Wigner met and married a young physics student, Amelia Frank. Tragically, she died of cancer less than a year after their December 1936 wedding. Despite the many close relationships he had developed in Wisconsin and his highly productive years there, Wigner in his grief longed for a change of scene. Therefore, he was receptive when Princeton made him an offer. In the autumn of 1938, Wigner arrived at Princeton with the promotion he had previously craved: he was now Thomas D. Jones Professor of Mathematical Physics.

War Takes Center Stage. After returning to Princeton, Wigner became so concerned with the rising power of Adolf Hitler and the growing threat of world war that he brought his parents to the United States. Shortly thereafter came the announcement that fission had been discovered. Like others who knew subatomic physics, Wigner immediately realized that fission opened the possibility of a weapon of unprecedented power.

Although Wigner continued to pursue his multifaceted basic research program, he was increasingly drawn to war-related applied projects. His first worry was that a fission weapon was feasible and the Germans might develop it. He discussed the issue with Szilard and Teller, cohorts from his early Berlin days who had by then also emigrated to the United States. They agreed that Wigner and Szilard should enlist Einstein’s help in warning the U.S. government of the potential threat. The result was the famous letter from Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered by economist Alexander Sachs, who acted as the president’s unofficial advisor.

Wigner and others wondered whether, given subsequent bureaucratic sluggishness, the letter actually speeded the formation of the U.S. atomic bomb project. In any case, the letter did provide six thousand dollars from the U.S. government to Enrico Fermi to further his efforts to create a nuclear chain reaction in a system of natural uranium and pure graphite. Alongside these efforts Wigner and others—including Werner Heisenberg in Germany—made the necessary theoretical calculations, so that by 1942 much of the basic theory for reactor physics had been developed.

In April 1942 Wigner took a formal leave of absence from Princeton and joined the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory, where nuclear chain reaction studies were consolidated. He came with his second wife, Mary Wheeler; they had been married a little more than a year. The couple would eventually have two children, Martha and David.

From 1942 to 1945 Wigner supervised twenty theoretical physicists in office space at the University of Chicago. About half a year after his transfer to the Midwest, he was one of fifty people to witness Fermi’s demonstration of the first self-sustaining chain reaction underneath the university’s Stagg Field Stadium.

Wigner and his group studied chain reactions, the effect of neutrons and (γ-rays on matter; they also helped plan and evaluate experimental work. Their main task, however, was a job of enormous proportions: they designed the first full-scale plutonium producing reactors that were later build at Hanford, Washington.

The job drew on Wigner’s knowledge of chemical engineering as well his background in theoretical physics. From the beginning, the general outlines of the Hanford reactors were specified: They would have a lattice made of natural uranium fuel rods that were embedded in a graphite moderator. This left open a number of major decisions, however, including the choice of coolant and how it would be used; the dimensions of the reactor and fuel rods; the design of the fuel rods; and the exact placement of cladding, tube materials, and control rods. All of these decisions required detailed analysis of such issues as heat transfer and pressure drops. Wigner was intimately involved in the smallest design decisions; when DuPont later built the reactors, he personally double-checked every blueprint.

The choice of coolant was particularly key. The original idea was that the reactors would be helium cooled. Thanks to his chemical engineering background, however, Wigner saw a problem, noting that helium-cooled reactors would have to be operated at excessively high temperatures, causing tremendous materials problems. He suggested that, instead, ordinary water be used, a brave suggestion because it had not yet been proven that such a system could sustain a chain reaction. Wigner acknowledged that reactivity would be a bit less if water were used rather than helium, but he insisted that his calculations and Fermi’s experiments showed that a workable water-cooled reactor could be built. As he noted, such a reactor could also be constructed more quickly than a reactor with helium cooling. The head of the Metallurgical Laboratory, Arthur Compton, was convinced by Wigner’s arguments and approved the design of a massive, water-cooled reactor.

Wigner’s group completed a design report for the reactors in January 1943. For the most part, DuPont adopted the design and began construction of the reactors. The start-up of the first reactor in 1944 was marred by crisis: Xenon-135, an unexpected fission product, absorbed so many neutrons that the chain reaction stalled before going to full design power. A team that included Fermi and John Wheeler diagnosed the problem, and DuPont engineers found a way to add extra uranium to the reactor to counteract the xenon poisoning. The Hanford reactors went on successfully to complete their mission: they produced sufficient plutonium for the second atomic weapon, which was dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945.

Further Contributions to Reactors. Wigner returned to Princeton in 1947. As he resumed his research career, he and his group went on to make numerous other contributions to reactor engineering after they turned the Hanford reactors over to DuPont for routine operation. During this period Wigner invented techniques later taught in reactor-design textbooks. In addition, he anticipated what later came to be known as the Wigner disease, that is, the swelling of a reactor’s crystal lattice that occludes the fuel elements, a condition resulting from the intense bombardment of graphite by neutrons. During the war, Wigner’s name was on thirty-seven engineering patents for various types of reactors.

In 1945 Wigner proposed that Clinton Laboratories in Tennessee (which during World War II housed pilot plutonium-producing reactors and enriched uranium for the uranium bomb) should be converted into a postwar reactor facility. In 1948 Clinton became such a facility, known as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

In 1947, before the conversion, Wigner served as Clinton’s research director. In this capacity he formed that same year the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology, which became an important training facility for the new field of reactor engineering. The most famous graduate of the school was Hyman Rickover, who went on to develop nuclear submarines. As research director, Wigner also laid the groundwork for the Materials Testing Reactor at Oak Ridge, the first enriched-uranium high-powered reactor that was cooled and moderated with water.

After a short time in Tennessee, Wigner decided that he was not well-suited to be a manager in the highly politicized environment of the emerging U.S. reactor program. Therefore, he returned to Princeton at the end of summer in 1947 to do basic research. Wigner continued to be a consultant to Oak Ridge under the management of his successor, Alvin Weinberg. Wigner also served as a consultant to DuPont for the company’s Savannah River heavy-water reactors.

Postwar Academic and Statesman. For the next quarter of a century, Wigner would serve as a Princeton professor, rounding out an academic career that would, in all, span four decades. In addition to pursuing his own research, Wigner supervised a large number of PhD students; most of his more than forty graduate students got their degrees during the postwar period.

Wigner’s scientific interests continued to be broad. He undertook topics in nuclear physics, investigated the foundations of quantum mechanics, and worked in relativistic wave equations. Although his interest in nuclear structure waned, he became increasingly involved in the study of nuclear reactions, a line of inquiry that resulted in more articles than in any other of his subjects of interest.

Wigner also started and fully developed R-matrix theory for nuclear reactions. His work with R-functions and R-matrices extended beyond direct application to resonance reactions. One result of his continuing fascination with mathematics was work on random matrix elements that led to the founding of quantum chaos theory.

Wigner retained a passionate interest in civil defense issues alongside his academic pursuits. Through the 1960s he vociferously argued against the idea of countering the threat of nuclear war by building weapons arsenals capable of mutual assured destruction. In 1963, the year he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on symmetry principles in quantum mechanics, he also directed the Harbor Project, a six-week National Academy of Sciences study of civil defense that included sixty-two scientists, statesmen, and engineers. Wigner’s work as a statesman of science also included participation in international Pug-wash Conferences on Science and World Affairs dedicated to reducing the use of atomic weapons. In addition, he edited and contributed to a 1969 volume on civil defense, again warning about the danger of atomic weaponry.

Retirement. Wigner retired from Princeton University as a physics professor in 1971. This milestone did not, however, mark the end of his career as an intellectual and statesman. In the scientific arena he continued pursuing his lifelong fascination with the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, in particular the use of techniques derived from group theory. He also continued teaching, accepting a variety of visiting professorships at, for example, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge and the Erice summer school in Sicily.

Wigner’s interest in civil defense and statesmanship also persisted. He continued as an adviser to Oak Ridge, particularly focusing on research aimed at finding ways to protect civilians from nuclear war. As part of this effort he devoted considerable attention to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Because the Soviets had loosened political control of his native Hungary by this time of his retirement, Wigner also became active in fostering cultural and scientific ties between Hungarians and the rest of the free world and furthering Hungarian freedom.

At this stage in his life Wigner also turned to philosophical queries. He participated in a broad range of meetings with a philosophical bent, from the annual meetings of Nobel laureates to groups associated with the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. He also published a series of philosophical essays, Symmetries and Reflections(1967).

Mary, Wigner’s wife of forty years, died of cancer in 1977. In 1979 he married Edith Hamilton. With Edith as his close companion, he continued a vigorous schedule until he was well over eighty. Wigner died on 1 January 1995 in Princeton, New Jersey.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Wigner’s papers are located at the Manuscript Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey. A complete bibliography of Wigner’s published works is in the Collected Works volumes, listed below.

WORKS BY WIGNER

“On Unitary Representations of the Inhomogeneous Lorentz Group.” Annals of Mathematics 40 (1939): 149–204.

With Leonard Eisenbud. “Higher Angular Momenta and Long Range Interaction in Resonance Reactions.” Physical Review 72 (1947): 29–41.

“On the Distribution of the Roots of Certain Symmetric Matrices.” Annals of Mathematics 67 (1958): 325–328.

With Alvin M. Weinberg. The Physical Theory of Neutron Chain Reactors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Group Theory and Its Application to the Quantum Mechanics of Atomic Spectra. Translated by J. J. Griffin. New York: Academic Press, 1959. Originally published as Gruppentheorie und Ihre Anwendung auf die Quantenmechanik der Atomspektren (Brunswick, Germany: F. Vieweg und Sohn, 1931).

“Events, Laws of Nature, and Invariance Principles.” Nobel Lecture, 1963. Available from http://nobelprize.org/physics.

Symmetries and Reflections: Scientific Essays by Eugene P. Wigner. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967.

The Collected Works of Eugene Paul Wigner. Edited by Arthur S. Wightman and Jagdish Mehra. Berlin, and New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992–1998.

OTHER SOURCES

Pais, Abraham. “Eugene Wigner.” In The Scientific Genius: A Portrait Gallery of Twentieth-Century Physicists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Seitz, Frederick, Erich Vogt, and Alvin M. Weinberg, “Eugene Paul Wigner.” Available from http://www.nap.edu.

Szanton, Andrew. The Recollections of Eugene P. Wigner as Told to Andrew Szanton. New York: Plenum Press, 1992.

Weinberg, Alvin. “Eugene Wigner, Nuclear Engineer.” Physics Today 55 (October 2002): 42–47. Available from http://www.aip.org/pt/vol-55/iss-10/p42.html.

Catherine Westfall

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Wigner, Eugene Paul (Jenó Pál)." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Wigner, Eugene Paul (Jenó Pál)." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/wigner-eugene-paul-jeno-pal

"Wigner, Eugene Paul (Jenó Pál)." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/wigner-eugene-paul-jeno-pal

Eugene Paul Wigner

Eugene Paul Wigner

The Hungarian-born American physicist Eugene Paul Wigner (1902-1995) formulated symmetry principles and, together with group theory, applied them in atomic, nuclear, and elementary particle physics.

On November 17, 1902, Eugene P. Wigner was born in Budapest, the son of Anthony Wigner, a leather manufacturer, and Elisabeth Einhorn Wigner. In 1920 he entered the Technical Institute in Budapest, where, at his father's urging, he concentrated on chemical engineering although his principal interest lay in mathematics. A year later he transferred to the Technische Hochschule in Berlin, still majoring in engineering. However, before long he was a regular visitor at the physics colloquia attended by some of the chief leaders in physics in Germany at that time, including Albert Einstein, Walther Nernst, and Max Planck.

Wigner's doctoral thesis was on the formation and disintegration of molecules. After a year and a half of work as leather chemist, Wigner eagerly accepted the offer of an assistant professorship at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin, where, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, his attention turned toward the exploration of symmetry principles in atomic physics. Related to this was Wigner's recognition that group theory, a branch of mathematics inaugurated almost 100 years earlier, could be used to great advantage in accounting for the quantummechanical interpretation of atomic spectra. His book on this topic, Gruppentheorie and ihre Anwendung auf die Quantenmechanik der Atomspektren (1931; trans. in 1959 as Group Theory), is a classic in the field.

Wigner's stay in Berlin ended in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. His first post in the United States was at Princeton University, the second at the University of Wisconsin (1937-1938). In 1938 he returned to Princeton as Thomas D. Jones professor of mathematical physics. During the 1930s Wigner followed with keen interest research on neutron capture, and he was one of the first to realize its awesome and immediate potentialities.

In 1936 Wigner married Amelia Z. Frank. She died the following year. In 1941 he married Mary Annette Wheeler, and they had two children, David and Martha. After her death Wigner married Eileen Hamilton and had another daughter, Erika.

Among his early efforts to alert the government of the United States was his visit, in the summer of 1939 with Leo Szilard, to Albert Einstein on Long Island. What happened made history. At Wigner's and Szilard's pleading, Einstein consented to address a letter to President Roosevelt about the urgency of producing atomic weapons. In the actual production of the first atomic bomb, Wigner's role was crucial.

Wigner not only took a most active part in achieving the first controlled nuclear reaction in Chicago in December 1942, but it became his task to design the first large-scale nuclear reactor. His secret report of January 9, 1943, outlined the details of the huge reactor, a million times more powerful than the first, to be built near the banks of the Columbia River. The gigantic measure of problems to be solved can be gauged from the fact that Wigner's design called for 200 tons of uranium and 1,200 tons of graphite. He also successfully argued that the cooling should be done by water running throughout the whole graphite structure in pipes whose central part contained the uranium. It is safe to assume that Wigner's feat saved about a year in the production of the bomb and also in the duration of the war. After the war he remained a leader in the investigation of the very essence of reactor theory, the neutron chain reaction, as evidenced by his authoritative work written jointly with A.M. Weinberg, The Physical Theory of Neutron Chain Reactors (1958).

In the 1950s but especially in the 1960s, Wigner's attention increasingly turned to some fundamental questions of physical science and to their major philosophical implications. His articles "Invariance in Physical Theory" (1949), "Conservation Laws in Classical and Quantum Physics" (1954), "The Problem of Measurement" (1963), and "Symmetry and Conservation Laws" (1964) have already proved their lasting value. As to the philosophical ramifications of physics, the same holds for his papers "The Limits of Science" (1950), "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Natural Sciences" (1960), "Two Kinds of Reality" (1964), and "The Probability of the Existence of a Self-reproducing Unit" (1961).

Wigner's main scientific distinctions are the Nobel Prize in physics for 1963 and the Max Planck Medal of the German Physical Society (1962). His adopted country gave him the Medal for Merit, the Enrico Fermi Prize, the Atoms for Peace Award, and the Albert Einstein Award. In 1990 Wigner received the Order of the Banner of the Republic of Hungary with Rubies from his newly democratized birthplace, Hungary. In 1994, he was presented with Hungary's highest recognition, the Order of Merit.

Most significantly, in 1963, is Wigner's award of the Nobel physics prize for "systematically improving and extending the methods of quantum mechanics and applying them widely." Specifically, he was commended for his contribution to the theory of atomic nuclei elementary particles, especially for his discovery and application of fundamental principles of symmetry. This marked an unusual departure for the Nobel Committee, which normally awards the prize for a single discovery or invention.

Wigner, who retired from Princeton in 1971, was also active on behalf of other scientists. He was one of thirty-three Nobel Prize winners who sent a telegram to President Podgorny of the former Soviet Union asking that Andrei Saktlarov be permitted to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm.

His dedication to the defense of America's freedom, and of freedom everywhere, constitutes indeed a major aspect of his life and activities. It was the same unconditional appreciation of freedom, whether threatened by dictatorship from the right or the left, that determined Wigner's position amidst the debates on nuclear armament and civil defense. His philosophy is best evidenced by his insistence on the crucial importance of the role of nonscientists in the modern scientific world: "The struggle for men's minds continues and it is quite possible that the conflict between democracy and dictatorships will be won not by armies, not even by scientists, but by philosophers, psychologists, and missionaries who articulate and communicate our ideals."

Wigner died from pneumonia at the age of 92 on Sunday, January 1, 1995.

Further Reading

Wigner's Symmetries and Reflections: Scientific Essays (1967) contains a selection of his less technical papers on a wide range of subjects. There is no comprehensive account of Wigner's life and work. A profile of him appears in Robert H. Phelps, Men in the News—1958: Personality Sketches from the New York Times (1959). The history of modern physics, of which he was a part, is entertainingly given in George Gamow, Biography of Physics (1961). The extensive use of group theory in physics is fully discussed in Morton Hamermesh, Group Theory and Its Application to Physical Problems (1962). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Eugene Paul Wigner." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Eugene Paul Wigner." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/eugene-paul-wigner

"Eugene Paul Wigner." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/eugene-paul-wigner

Wigner, Eugene Paul

Eugene Paul Wigner (wĬg´nər), 1902–95, American physicist, b. Hungary, grad. Technische Hochschule, Berlin, 1925. He was a professor at Princeton from 1930 to 1936 and again from 1938 to 1971. In 1937 he became a U.S. citizen. During World War II he worked on the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the first atomic bomb. After beginning his association with the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947, he served as a member of its general advisory committee from 1952 to 1957 and from 1959 to 1964. He shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics with U.S. physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer and German physicist J. H. D. Jensen for work on the structure of the atomic nucleus. Wigner also received other major awards, including the National Science Medal and Atoms for Peace Award.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Wigner, Eugene Paul." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Wigner, Eugene Paul." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wigner-eugene-paul

"Wigner, Eugene Paul." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wigner-eugene-paul

Wigner, Eugene Paul

Wigner, Eugene Paul (1902–95) US physicist, b. Hungary. During World War 2, Wigner worked on the Manhattan Project. He was the first physicist to apply group theory to quantum mechanics. With this technique, he discovered the law of conservation of parity. For his work on the structure of the atomic nucleus, Wigner shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics with Hans Jensen and Maria Goeppert-Mayer.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Wigner, Eugene Paul." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Wigner, Eugene Paul." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wigner-eugene-paul

"Wigner, Eugene Paul." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wigner-eugene-paul