Weisskopf, Victor F.

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WEISSKOPF, VICTOR F. (1908–2002), physicist. He was born and educated in Vienna before gaining his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Goettingen under the supervision of Eugene *Wigner (1931). He worked with Erwin Schroedinger and Werner Heisenberg at the University of Berlin (1931–32) and in Niels *Bohr's laboratory in Copenhagen (1932–33), supported by a Rockefeller scholarship and supplemented by a stipend from the Carlsberg brewery. He next worked with Wolfgang *Pauli at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (1934–36). Aware that the rise of Nazism precluded a career in Germany, Weisskopf went first to Kharkov, Ukraine (then in the Soviet Union), where he worked with Lev *Landau. After eight months he was offered both a position at the University of Rochester, New York, and a better-paid post in the University of Kiev, Ukraine. His impressions of the Soviet Union persuaded him to move to Rochester (1937). In 1944 he joined the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos as a group leader in the Theoretical Division. After World War ii Weisskopf joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit) (1946–60) before moving to the Centre Européenne pour la Recherche Nucleaire (cern) in Geneva, initially as one of five directors but as director-general after one year (1961–65). He returned to mit as head of the department of physics (1967–73), but he taught in Geneva every summer. He continued his research after 1973. Weisskopf was a theoretician who entered the then very small and illustrious coterie of nuclear physicists. He was admired for his ability to reformulate abstruse mathematical concepts in comprehensible physical language. In the 1930s he was concerned with the application of quantum mechanics to electromagnetic fields and devised mathematical solutions that accelerated progress in this contentious subject. His main contribution to the Manhattan Project was to calculate the effects of nuclear fission explosions, but he also worked on the peaceful applications of nuclear energy. In Geneva, despite the physical problems of a hip injury sustained in a traffic accident, he presided over the introduction of the challenging and ultimately highly successful program in accelerator physics designed to study the interaction of subatomic particles colliding at high velocity. Weisskopf was renowned for his helpfulness to his colleagues, regardless of their status. His books for students and laymen were highly influential, and Knowledge and Wonder: The Natural World as Man Knows It (1962) was selected as the science book of the year for young people. Weisskopf 's concerns over nuclear weapons began in 1944, and he was a founder member of the Federation of Atomic Scientists. These concerns were heightened when he witnessed the Trinity test, and by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. He was present at the first Pugwash meeting (1957) and prominent in the subsequent organization. His honors included membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the (70-member) Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1975). His awards included the Max Planck Medal (1956), the U.S. National Medal of Science (1980), the Wolf Prize in physics (1981), the Oppenheimer Medal (1983), and the Public Welfare Medal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (1991). He was also a Mozart scholar.

[Michael Denman (2nd ed.)]