Condon, Edward Uhler

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(b. Alamogordo, New Mexico, 2 March 1902;

d. Boulder, Colorado, 26 March 1974), physics, theoretical physics, quantum physics, spectroscopy, atomic and molecular structure, solid state physics, industrial physics, government administration.

Condon’s long and varied career combined major discoveries in theoretical physics with professional forays into academe, industry, and the federal government and political engagement on issues related to science, particularly the dangers of the nuclear age. His most noteworthy scientific achievements included the quantum tunneling explanation of alpha particle radioactivity. More generally, Condon experienced and participated in most of the major developments in the history of twentieth-century American physics: the quantum revolution and its reception in the United States; the building of patronage networks for training and research support; industrial research; war and the transformation of relations between science and government; the rise of the Cold War and military patronage of science; and the politics of the nuclear age.

Origins and Early Career . Condon was born in Alamogordo, New Mexico, not far from the site of the Trinity test, the world’s first nuclear detonation, four decades later. The son of William Edward Condon, a railroad builder, and Carolyn Uhler Condon, the future physicist experienced a peripatetic early childhood as his family moved from one construction job to the next. The moves continued even after Condon’s parents divorced, until Condon and his mother settled in Oakland, California. There Condon attended high school and nourished early interests in science and journalism. He then attended college at the University of California, Berkeley, but soon dropped out to embark on a career as a newspaper reporter. His two years as a journalist ended in disgust, however: Not only did he have to write what he later termed “lurid and sensationalist” pieces about the Communist Labor Party for the right-wing Oakland Enquirer, but he was also forced to testify as a witness against the party in a criminal syndicalism trial. Disillusioned, he turned to physics out of strong interest and, he later recalled, “as a means of escape from the corruption of the world” (Morse, 1976, p. 126).

Condon returned to the University of California, Berkeley, in the fall of 1921, and while in college he married Emilie Honzik in 1922. He earned his bachelor’s degree in three years and completed his doctorate at Berkeley in 1926 under Raymond T. Birge, who was then studying the band spectra of diatomic molecules. Condon’s dissertation provided a general theoretical explanation of the regularities in band spectral intensities observed by Birge and other researchers, by extending James O. Franck’s explanation of the dissociation of a diatomic molecule due to absorption of a photon. Condon described a more complex absorption process involving simultaneous changes in the molecule’s electron state and vibrational state. After receiving his PhD, Condon spent a postdoctoral year in Germany on a Rockefeller-funded fellowship from the National Research Council (NRC), de rigeur for young, ambitious American theoretical physicists. The Condons, with infant daughter Marie in tow, spent the fall of 1926 in Göttingen, where Condon worked with Max Born and mastered the newly invented theory of quantum mechanics. They then moved on to Munich for the spring of 1927, where Condon enjoyed the tutelage of Arnold Sommerfeld and revised his doctoral research with a more fully worked out quantum mechanical explanation of the band spectra of diatomic molecules. Later known as the Franck-Condon principle, the interpretation rested on the basic assumption that electron excitation due to photon absorption occurs almost instantaneously, without a change in the relative position of the much heavier nuclei. The excited molecule finds itself in a non-equilibrium position with regard to the vibrations of its constituent atoms; the absorption thus leads to changes in both the electronic and vibrational states of the molecule. Subsequently, the molecule frequently loses vibrational energy more quickly due to interactions with other molecules, before losing electron excitation energy by emission of a photon and thereby returning to the electron ground state. This understanding provided a quantum theoretical explanation of the long-observed Stokes rule in photoluminescence, that is, the downward shift in light frequency between absorption and emission. Condon’s work allowed exact calculations of band intensities, correctly predicted a new type of band spectrum, and established the main foundation for physical explanations of the complex interaction between absorption, emission, and atomic vibrations in molecular spectra.

Condon returned from Germany as part of the group of young, talented American physicists who would soon transform the United States, then still somewhat of a scientific backwater, into a leader in physics. Despite his early success, however, Condon underwent a crisis of confidence. Overwhelmed by the rate of progress in theoretical physics and the seeming impossibility of keeping up with the literature, he feared himself inadequate for a research career. Falling back upon his journalistic roots, Condon initially took work at the publications bureau for Bell Telephone Laboratories. This industrial experience provided him a first lesson in communicating the significance of physics to management, as he spent the fall of 1927 trying to convince Bell’s higher-ups of the importance of Clinton J. Davisson’s and Lester H. Germer’s in-house experiments on the diffraction of electrons beams by single crystals of nickel. Ten years later, Davisson shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with George P. Thomson for this experimental confirmation of the wave nature of electrons.

Condon’s own hiatus from research did not last long. Quantum mechanics was new to the United States, and Condon found himself in great demand as a speaker at various university seminars and colloquia. He soon received half a dozen offers for academic positions, and he joined the physics faculty of Princeton University in 1928. There Condon enjoyed an extremely productive first year that included an elaboration of his earlier work on the Franck-Condon principle as well as the coauthoring, with Philip M. Morse, of Quantum Mechanics(1929), the first English-language textbook on the subject. His most important discovery by far, however, was the barrier leakage (often referred to as quantum tunneling) explanation of radioactivity that he and Ronald W. Gurney worked out in 1928. Classical physics could not explain how an alpha particle acquired sufficient energy to overcome the binding forces of the nucleus and be emitted from an atom. By contrast, Gurney and Condon demonstrated that according to the new probabilistic quantum mechanics, an alpha particle had a finite chance of escaping from the nucleus without having to surmount an energy barrier by “leaking” under it through an area of prohibited energies. The two physicists likened the process to that of a ball leaving a valley by “slipping through the mountain” rather than having to climb over the surrounding ranges in order to escape. Soviet physicist George Gamow independently developed the same interpretation of alpha radioactivity, which also explained the fundamentally probabilistic nature of radioactive decay and the wide range of lifetimes observed experimentally for various radioactive nuclei. The Gamow-Condon-Gurney theory of alpha decay soon became famous as the first successful application of quantum mechanics to nuclear phenomena.

Condon was briefly wooed to the University of Minnesota by a full professorship; he spent the 1929–1930 academic year there before returning to what he felt was the livelier intellectual atmosphere of the Physics Department at Princeton. Over the next seven years, he continued to pursue work in nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, and atomic and molecular spectra. In “Theory of Scattering Protons by Protons” (1936), written with Gregory Breit and Richard D. Present, Condon made another important theoretical contribution, this time toward understanding what physicists later called the strong nuclear interaction. By analyzing experimental data on proton-proton scattering from Merle Tuve, Lawrence Hafstad, and Norman Heydenburg at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Breit, Condon, and Present demonstrated the charge-independence of nuclear forces, namely that proton-proton and proton-neutron nuclear interactions are nearly equal, with differences resulting only from the weaker Coulomb and spin effects. Meanwhile, Condon’s interest in atomic spectra led him to produce another classic textbook, The Theory of Atomic Spectra(1935), coauthored with George H. Shortley. The Princeton years also witnessed rapid growth in the Condon household with the birth of sons Paul Edward and Joseph Henry. Princeton doctoral students, including Morse and Frederick Seitz, later recalled the warm sociability and hospitality of the Condon home, a large, rambling household with a regular flow of guests located in a less fashionable area of town, in marked contrast to the cold civility that normally dominated life at Princeton.

From Industrial to War Research . Despite his professional achievements, Condon received no rank promotions or salary increases as a faculty member throughout the 1930s, and additionally, as someone used to the relaxed, casual customs of the West, he disliked the atmosphere of snobbery and elitism that he perceived at Princeton. In addition, Karl T. Compton’s departure for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1930 had left Princeton’s Physics Department with a void in leadership, and Condon found the scholarly environment increasingly unsatisfactory. Condon had not forgotten his days at Bell, and he remained interested in industrial physics. When Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company offered him new challenges, a change of scenery, and a much higher salary, he leapt at the opportunity and moved to Pittsburgh to become Westinghouse’s associate director of research in the fall of 1937.

Westinghouse hired Condon as part of an effort to catch up with the likes of General Electric, AT&T, and DuPont by building a strong industrial research program. Under Condon’s guidance, Westinghouse established a reputation in nuclear physics, mass spectrometry, and microwave electronics. Using the company’s five-million-volt electrostatic generator, physicists in Condon’s group measured various light elements’ threshold energies for neutron emission when bombarded by protons. After the discovery of nuclear fission by Otto Hahn, Fritz Strass-mann, and Lise Meitner in 1938, physicists at Westinghouse discovered the phenomenon of photofission (fission of uranium by gamma ray absorption, rather than neutron bombardment), and they established the neutron energy threshold for the fissioning of U-238. In mass spectrometry, Condon was a pioneer in encouraging the general use of mass spectrometry in industrial science, and he also pushed Westinghouse to develop spectrometers as a commercial product. Condon established a thriving program in microwave research as well, which soon yielded wartime applications.

In addition to implementing an active research agenda, Condon also launched the Westinghouse Research Fellowships, a program modeled on the NRC postdoctoral fellowships and designed to nurture young talent and encourage physicists to consider careers at Westinghouse. World War II brought the fellowship program to a temporary close in 1942, but during its four years of operation under Condon’s tenure, it succeeded in training and recruitment. Condon hired some two dozen fellows, and nearly two-thirds of them ultimately accepted full-time employment at Westinghouse.

Condon proved less successful at the business end of industrial science. Westinghouse’s roots in a strong engineering tradition meant that its managers had little knowledge of physics and its commercial potential, and Westinghouse generally did a poor job of exploiting its physics research program for commercial purposes. Management’s ignorance gave Condon free rein in running his research group, but the company’s leadership was often unresponsive to his ideas about commercial applications. Despite his urging, Westinghouse failed to enter the growing market for radioactive isotopes in the 1930s. Condon’s efforts to have Westinghouse manufacture and sell portable spectrometers also came to naught. For the most part, during Condon’s years at the company, physics research provided Westinghouse with a public image of innovation and cutting-edge science but less in the way of practical applications. The one major exception was the microwave research program, where the pull of World War II and wartime military needs mattered more than managerial strategy. Radar became a major source of revenue, with radar equipment bringing in more than $200 million in sales by the end of 1945.

War mobilization also brought Condon, along with most of the rest of the American physics community, into a new relationship with the state. In 1940, the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) set up the Radiation Laboratory at MIT in order to pursue research and development of radar. By this time, Westinghouse’s program in microwave electronics had already begun to yield major improvements in the performance of the Sperry Gyroscope Company’s klystron, and this work led to collaborative efforts with the radar project at MIT. Condon spent much of 1940–1941 shuttling back and forth between Pittsburgh and Cambridge, Massachusetts, as head of Westinghouse’s microwave research. Meanwhile, the company cut back on its other scientific programs in order to concentrate on the war effort. Westinghouse shut down its nuclear physics program in 1941 and suspended its research fellowships in 1942.

World War II ushered in the age of prominent advisory positions and high-level government and military contacts that came to define much of physicists’ political existence during the Cold War years. Radar quickly drew Condon into this new and evolving era. As war preparedness spread throughout the United States in the summer and fall of 1941, Condon briefly served with Richard C. Tolman and Charles C. Lauritsen on the NDRC’s rocket program, from which emerged the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was also a member of S-1, the committee set up in 1941 to explore the feasibility of the atomic bomb. Then, in 1943, Condon joined the Manhattan Project as associate director of Los Alamos, the secret New Mexico laboratory led by J. Robert Oppenheimer with the mission of building the atomic bomb. Condon’s stint at Los Alamos ended after a disastrous six weeks, but his affiliation with the Manhattan Project continued. At the University of California, Berkeley, Ernest O. Lawrence’s Radiation Laboratory was using Westinghouse mass spectrographs in its efforts to purify U-235 through electromagnetic separation. The Westinghouse connection took Condon to Berkeley, where he headed the Theoretical Physics Division at the Radiation Laboratory from August 1943 to February 1945.

The brevity of Condon’s tenure at Los Alamos resulted from repeated clashes with General Leslie R. Groves over security restrictions and living conditions on the mesa. Condon found military control and coordination at Los Alamos inadequate in almost every respect, and he challenged Groves on matters ranging from water supply, to schools for the children of laboratory personnel, to secrecy requirements and the policy of compartmentalization. His brief and bitter experience at Los Alamos led him to develop a healthy disdain for the military’s ability to run scientific operations. In later years he liked to regale friends and colleagues with tales that demonstrated the shortcomings of the military mentality, and in public he became a sharp critic of military constraints on scientific research. Groves, for his part, never forgave Condon. In June 1945, just before Condon was about to leave for Moscow as part of an American scientific delegation invited to celebrate the 220th anniversary of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Groves pressured Westinghouse to keep Condon at home, and he had the scientist’s passport revoked at the last minute. Condon nearly lost his job because the company feared losing military contracts if it kept him on the payroll, and the incident helped precipitate his move to the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) after the war.

Nuclear Age Politics . After World War II ended with the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans uneasily contemplated the grim prospect of future conflicts fought with nuclear weapons. Manhattan Project scientists became particularly active participants in the early postwar debate over atomic energy, augmenting their new partnership with the state with attempts at public education and direct political mobilization in what quickly became known as the atomic scientists’ movement. Condon eagerly lent his voice and energy to the movement, and he became an outspoken and prominent advocate of civilian and international control of atomic energy. A self-identified liberal with strong civil libertarian leanings, Condon devoted his postwar political exertions to speaking out on issues related to science, namely atomic energy, security and secrecy, and international cooperation in science. As part of the scientists’ movement, he worked with physicist Leo Szilard to organize against the May-Johnson bill, a hastily constructed piece of legislation proposed immediately after the war to place atomic energy under strict military control with heavy secrecy requirements. The new connections the atomic scientists forged with Congress soon landed Condon an official position as technical adviser to the Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy in November 1945. Through Szilard, Condon also met Henry A. Wallace, the secretary of commerce and former vice president of the United States, and Wallace tapped Condon to become the next director of the NBS.

At the end of 1945, the May-Johnson bill was scrapped in favor of the McMahon bill, which placed atomic energy under the purview of the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In the spring of 1946, as he and other scientists fought for the McMahon bill, Condon spoke out vigorously about the need to oppose secrecy and promote international cooperation in science. An attitude of openness, Condon argued, not only allowed progress in scientific knowledge but also promoted trust between nations, a sorely needed commodity in a time of growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. The military mentality of secrecy, by contrast, led to “suspicion and mistrust,” as well as to a misplaced belief that other nations could attain nuclear weapons only through espionage and not their own scientific capacities. Condon urged Americans to “chase this isolationist, chauvinist poison from our minds,” reject the military mind-set, and seek international control of atomic energy and international cooperation in science as part of the larger pursuit of world peace (Wang, 1999, p. 22).

Scientists’ political mobilization helped ensure passage of the McMahon bill, and President Truman signed the measure, the Atomic Energy Act, into law in August 1946. The exigencies of the Cold War, however, ultimately defeated scientists’ hopes that American nuclear policy would focus on peaceful applications, and by the late 1940s, it was clear that the development of nuclear weapons constituted the AEC’s top priority. More generally, with funding for basic research in the physical sciences dominated by the AEC and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the linkages between science and the military strengthened during the cold war years. Under Condon’s leadership, the NBS took part in the consolidation of the science-military relationship. Although an opponent of what he saw as a dangerous postwar trend toward militarism in U.S. foreign policy, Condon nevertheless avidly sought military contracts to supplement regular congressional appropriations and expand the bureau’s work.

Cold War Federal Science . The National Bureau of Standards was founded in 1901 to establish and maintain physical standards, analyze and test industrial materials, and conduct research related to measurement. As with other government agencies founded in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in the United States, the bureau’s scientific research functions were largely limited to solving a narrow range of practical problems connected directly to its mission. Nonetheless, by the time Condon became director, the NBS possessed a well-respected record of research in atomic and molecular spectroscopy, metallurgy, organic chemistry, and electrical and high-temperature measurement. Its wartime achievements included the variable-time radio proximity fuse, guided missile development, and work on natural and synthetic rubber, optical glass, and high-frequency radio propagation.

Although only in his early forties, Condon was an elder statesman in American science by the time he took charge at the NBS. He became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1944, served as vice president of the American Physical Society in 1945, and became president of the society in 1946. Condon arrived at the

National Bureau of Standards in late 1945 with ambitions of dramatically expanding its research functions and transforming it into a world-class scientific institution. As he attempted to implement this program, however, the bureau faced intense competition from rival visions for postwar science. Some scientists who were traditional conservatives, such as Frank B. Jewett, president of the National Academy of Sciences and former president of Bell Laboratories, distrusted governmental control of science and hoped for a return to the prewar dominance of the private sector—namely, philanthropic foundations and industry—as the primary sponsor of basic research. Most scientists, however, were impressed by their wartime experiences and bullish on the prospects of continued science-state cooperation, and they placed their faith in some kind of statism. Legislative proposals for a National Science Foundation first appeared during the war, and scientists of varying political stripes backed different versions of a government-funded foundation that would support basic research. During the debate over the McMahon bill, the atomic scientists hoped that an AEC under civilian control would provide generous funding for research in nuclear physics and related fields. The military, eager to capitalize on the relationship with science built during the war, also entered the field, and the ONR, established in 1946, quickly became a major supporter of the physical sciences.

In this competitive political environment, Condon’s aspirations for the NBS to become a leader in postwar science policy never had much of a chance. Stymied by the narrowly defined mission of its organic act and congressional unwillingness to grant the NBS greater administrative discretion, the bureau lacked the necessary institutional and political support to achieve Condon’s aims. Meanwhile, with the legislation for the National Science Foundation tied up in political conflict and with cold war priorities on the upswing, military and defense-related patronage from the ONR and the AEC came to dominate research in the physical sciences. By 1950, when the National Science Foundation was finally established and the organic act of the NBS amended, the vacuum in science funding had long since been filled by defense spending and a military-based political economy for Cold War science.

Although Condon outspokenly criticized what he saw as a dangerously confrontational foreign policy on the part of the United States, he was not so averse to military patronage of science as to forego opportunities for his agency. Under the Manhattan Project, he had sharply attacked military regimentation and the subordination of science to military decision making, but as director of the Bureau of Standards, he exhibited few qualms about seeking defense dollars. Like many physicists, his initial suspicions of military funding eased as he found that ONR and other military patrons seemed to provide generous funding with few strings attached. As Paul Forman, Stuart W. Leslie, and other historians have pointed out, however, this symbiosis of science and state did not leave science independent of military considerations—instead, it subtly redirected the research priorities of the physical sciences toward the needs of the national security state. Under Condon’s leadership, the bureau pursued research in materials science, solid state physics, guided missile development, radio wave propagation, and other areas of intense interest to the military. By the time Condon left the NBS in 1951, the die was cast. In 1953, 80 percent of the bureau’s budget came from either the Department of Defense or the Atomic Energy Commission.

Cold War Political Persecution . Although Condon managed the Bureau of Standards in a manner consistent with Cold War political orthodoxy, his outspokenness on atomic energy, internationalism, and international cooperation in science led to years of confrontation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), the self-appointed congressional guardian against internal political subversion. Better known for making sensational accusations than carefully investigating actual security threats, HUAC became a powerful symbol of the anti-Communist fervor that swept through U.S. politics and culture in the era of the post-World War II red scare. At the outset of the postwar period, the committee possessed little power or influence. In 1947, HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas latched upon atomic espionage as one of several issues the committee could exploit in order to raise its profile. As part of that effort, in the spring and summer of 1947, Thomas began to attack publicly Condon’s political associations and memberships in the American-Soviet Science Society (an organization dedicated to the exchange of published scientific literature) and other supposed communist front organizations. Then, on 1 March 1948, a HUAC subcommittee issued a report that labeled Condon “one of the weakest links in our atomic security” and challenged W. Averell Harriman, Henry A. Wallace’s successor as secretary of commerce, to either justify Condon’s continued federal employment or fire him (Wang, 1999, p. 132).

HUAC could cite no specific instances of inappropriate actions or violations of the law on Condon’s part, and its allegations consisted primarily of insinuations about Condon’s political beliefs and associations, particularly his support for international cooperation in science and the open exchange of scientific ideas, which J. Parnell Thomas equated with advocating espionage. Because Condon was a high-level presidential appointee, however, the case constituted serious political business, and it made newspaper headlines across the country. Thus began the most prominent Cold War political attack on an American scientist before the Oppenheimer case of 1954. The Department of Commerce immediately defended Condon by announcing that its loyalty board had cleared the NBS director in late February. (Under the loyalty program created by the Truman administration in March 1947, all federal employees had to undergo loyalty clearance.) Over the next several months, the scientific community rallied behind Condon with statements of support and letters to the White House, and he also received backing from the American Civil Liberties Union, Henry A. Wallace, and U.S. representatives Helen Gahagan Douglas and Chet Holifield from California. The Atomic Energy Commission signaled its endorsement in mid-July, when it upgraded Condon’s security clearance from pending to regular status. Then, in September, the president himself demonstrated his outright support. As he prepared to hit the campaign trail, Harry S. Truman shook hands with Condon on stage at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science before delivering a nationally broadcast address in which he slammed attacks on scientists as “unfounded rumors, gossip and vilification” that were “un-American, the most un-American thing we have to contend with today” (Wang, 2001, p. 40).

The atomic scientists feared that HUAC’s attack might be the beginning of a renewed assault on civilian control of atomic energy. The AEC, however, enjoyed the protection of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, and Thomas could not intrude too far onto the turf of another, more powerful congressional committee. For HUAC, targeting Condon served more mundane objectives as the committee sought higher appropriations and tried to make political hay during an election year. The furor temporarily died down after two HUAC members lost their reelection bids and Thomas resigned from Congress in disgrace after being indicted for payroll padding.

Yet in the ideologically charged atmosphere of the early Cold War years, when even mildly liberal political views could become pretexts for persecution, Condon remained vulnerable. In April 1951, Richard B. Vail, an obscure, second-term representative from Illinois and a member of HUAC, renewed the committee’s earlier charges. At the same time, under a revision in the executive order governing the federal loyalty program, Condon faced a reexamination of his loyalty clearance. Unwilling to undergo another round of wrenching political scrutiny, Condon resigned from the National Bureau of Standards in August to become the director of research and development at Corning Glass Works. There he wanted to delve into solid state physics, and he eventually produced four papers on the physics of the glassy state. Unfortunately for Condon, however, physics no longer offered the retreat from ugly political realities that it had three decades earlier, when he abandoned journalism for college. Vail continued to attack Condon, and in the 1952 election season HUAC subpoenaed him for a hearing. Condon answered all questions and emerged politically unscathed, but he still could not escape from anti-communist political pressures despite his move to the private sector. In 1954, he successfully applied for a security clearance in connection with classified research at Corning, but when the news became public, the secretary of the navy abruptly withdrew his security clearance, apparently at the behest of then vice president Richard M. Nixon, a former member of HUAC.

Condon initially resolved to fight for his security clearance, but frustrated by the seemingly endless battle and the heavy personal toll it extracted, he abandoned the struggle. Instead, he decided to return to university life, but there, too, a powerful academic blacklist affected his prospects. Scared off by Cold War political pressures, both New York University and the University of Pennsylvania turned Condon down for permanent positions. Washington University in St. Louis, however, doggedly refused to cave in to anti-communist orthodoxy. Under the leadership of the physicist and university chancellor Arthur H. Compton, it became somewhat of a refuge for scholars deemed too politically dangerous by other institutions, and after Compton stepped down from his administrative post in 1953, his successor continued the university’s vigorous defense of academic freedom. Condon joined Washington University in 1954, and he became chairman of the Physics Department in 1956.

Later Years . Condon did not stay put for long. In 1963, he moved on to a faculty position at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he also held a position as fellow at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics. Although he published few scientific papers during these later years, Condon continued to contribute to the profession as the editor of Reviews of Modern Physics from 1957 to 1968, and he also served as president of the American Association of Physics Teachers in 1964. Condon remained politically active as well. During the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War, he served as president of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science in 1968 and 1969 and as national co-chairman of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, in 1970. The only flashpoint of controversy came when he agreed to head the Air Force’s investigation of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) in the late 1960s. He had no trouble obtaining a security clearance, but the community of UFO believers never forgave his official report, which found no evidence of extraterrestrial visits to Earth. Condon had not lost his sense of humor, and he memorialized his experiences with the project for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in an essay puckishly titled, “UFOs I Have Loved and Lost” (1969).

Condon retired in 1970 and thereby brought his long and distinguished career to a close. He had lived through and helped to shape a transformative era in physics, one that witnessed the profound intellectual advances of the quantum revolution as well as the institutional metamorphosis of physics from a largely academic undertaking at the beginning of the century, to the rise of industrial physics in the interwar years, to the large-scale, state-funded enterprise that became post-World War II physics. During the process of institutional transformation, physicists’ social and political roles also changed, as the dilemmas of world war and the nuclear age offered physicists public visibility, high-powered advisory positions, and pressing opportunities for grassroots political activism. Condon’s life, then, provides a window on the broader history of physics in the United States during the twentieth century.


Condon’s personal papers, a large collection of seventy-five linear feet of material, are held at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Correspondence relevant to his life and career can be found in a wide range of archival collections besides his own papers. Two of the most important are the Records of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Records of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (formerly the National Bureau of Standards), RG 167, at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. In addition, Charles Weiner conducted an extensive series of oral history interviews with Condon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The transcripts are held by the Niels Bohr Library at the American Institute of Physics, College Park, Maryland. A full bibliography can be found in Philip M. Morse, “Edward Uhler Condon, 1902–1974,” Biographical Memoirs (National Academy of Sciences) 48 (1976). 125–151.


“Nuclear Motions Associated with Electron Transitions in Diatomic Molecules.” Physical Review 32 (1928): 858–872.

With Ronald W. Gurney. “Wave Mechanics and Radioactive Disintegration.” Nature 122 (22 September 1928): 439.

With Ronald W. Gurney. “Quantum Mechanics and Radioactive Disintegration.” Physical Review 33 (1929): 127–140.

With Philip M. Morse. Quantum Mechanics. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1929.

With George H. Shortley. The Theory of Atomic Spectra. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1935.

With G. Breit and R. D. Present. “Theory of Scattering of Protons by Protons.” Physical Review50 (1936): 825–845.


Britten, Wesley E., and Halis Odabasi, eds. Topics in Modern Physics: A Tribute to Edward U. Condon. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1971. Recollections of Condon are in the Preface and Foreword.

Lassman, Thomas C. “Industrial Research Transformed: Edward Condon at the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, 1935–1942.” Technology and Culture 44 (2003): 306–339.

———. “Government Science in Postwar America: Henry A. Wallace, Edward U. Condon, and the Transformation of the National Bureau of Standards, 1945–1951.” Isis 96 (2005): 25–51.

Morse, Philip M. “Edward Uhler Condon, 1902–1974.” Biographical Memoirs (National Academy of Sciences) 48 (1976): 125–151. A memorial essay.

Wang, Jessica. American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Wang has concentrated on Condon’s politics, especially his long, drawn-out confrontation with HUAC.

———. “Edward Condon and the Cold War Politics of Loyalty,” Physics Today 54 (2001): 35–42.

Jessica Wang

Condon, Edward U(hler) (1902-1974)

views updated May 14 2018

Condon, Edward U(hler) (1902-1974)

Professor of physics at the University of Colorado, and director of the study on UFOs (unidentified flying objects) commissioned by the U.S. Air Force and conducted by the University of Colorado in the late 1960s. The Condon Report, officially titled the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, was released by the U.S. government in 1969.

Edward Condon was born on March 2, 1902 in Almogordo, New Mexico. An outspoken and controversial figure, he spent two years doing research in Germany after obtaining a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California in 1926. He was assistant professor of physics at Princeton University (1928-29), professor of theoretical physics at the University of Minnesota, and associate professor at Princeton (1930-37). During World War II he was associate director of the Westinghouse Research Laboratories and participated in the development of radar and the atom bomb. After the war he became director of the National Bureau of Standards, U.S. Department of Consumers (1945-51), and subsequently headed the research and development division of Corning Glass Works (1951-54).

In the late 1940s Condon was attacked by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee for allegedly "consorting with communists." At the time he was a special adviser to the Special Senate Committee on Atomic Energy of the Congress. Following the "witch-hunts" of the period, and after clashing with Richard Nixon, his security clearance was revoked in 1953 and 1954. He resigned from Corning Glass Works and returned to an academic career. From 1956 to 1963, he was Wayman Crow Professor of Physics at Washington University, and he joined the University of Colorado faculty in 1963 as a professor in the Department of Physics and Astrophysics and fellow in the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics.

Condon's main conclusion was that further studies of UFO phenomena would not be of scientific benefit. He rejected the hypothesis of extraterrestrial origins of UFOs. Not surprisingly, he was condemned by many UFO enthusiasts as a debunker of the subject. He did not personally conduct field investigations while preparing this report. Condon retired after the report appeared and was named emeritus professor in 1970. He died on March 26, 1974 in Boulder, Colorado.


Condon, Edward U. "UFOs I Have Loved and Lost." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (December 1969).

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