Birge, Raymond Thayer

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(b. Brooklyn, New York, 13 March 1887; d. Berkeley, California, 22 March 1980)


Birge was a pivotal figure in introducing modern quantum physics in the United States and an architect of one of the most prestigious departments of physics. He was the son of John Thaddeus Birge, who was in the water transport and laundry machine businesses, and of Carolyn Raymond Birge. He married Irene Adelaide Walsh on 12 August 1913; they had two children, Carolyn Elizabeth and Robert Walsh. His son also became a phvsicist.

Because of the father’s business reverses in 1905, the family moved to his hometown of Troy, New York, where Birge entered business school. An engineer uncle, Charles Raymond, rescued him the following year by financing his education at the University of Wisconsin, where another uncle, the distinguished limnologist Edward Asahel Birge, helped guide his professional training. His teachers included Charles E. Mendenhall, Leonard R. ln gersoll. and Benjamin W. Snow, Birge received the A.B. in 1909, the M, A. in 1910, and the Ph.D. in 1914. Most of his professional career was spent at the University of California. Berkeley, where he chaired the physics department (1933–1953). Birge was a member of American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences (to which he was elected in 1933), the American Physical Society (of which he was president in 1955), the Optical Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, He was named faculty research lecturer at the University of California in 1946, and the physics laboratory constructed there in 1963 was named for him.

Influenced by some early experiments of Robert W. Wood, which he followed up in his dissertation work under Mendenhall. Birge early became adept in the techniques of molecular spectroscopy and a “missionary for the Bohr atom.” as he styled himself After serving as instructor (1913–1915) and assistant professor (1915–1918) at Syracuse University, he joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, where Gilbert Newton Lewis, the dean of the College of Chemistry, had developed the chemist’s alternative to the Bohr atom.

Birge’s advocacy of the Bohr theory and his work in molecular spectroscopy attracted the attention of the National Research Council, which nominated him to the Committee on Radiation in Cases. This committee prepared the report “Molecular Spectra in Gases” between 1922 and 1926, a crucial time in the evolution of the quantum theory. Birge’s contribution to the report, on electronic bands, was the most extensive chapter. Synthesizing data from his dissertation research, from astrophysical studies at the Mount Wilson Observatory, and from his own research group at the University of California, Birge reinterpreted them in light of the Bohr theory. Appearing in 1926, just when quantum mechanics was being formulated, the report had less impact, perhaps, than John H, van Vleck’s Quant am Principles and Line Spectra (1926) but played a similar role in educating the American community of physicists in quantum theory.

As a result of this work. Birge and his research group acquired a worldwide reputation. International research fellows like Gerhard! Dieke and Hertha Sponer (later Hertha Franck) came to his laboratory, then the largest academic physics laboratory in the country, to work with him. One of his own graduate students, Edward U. Condon, was led to the Franck-Condon principle through his association with Sponer in this laboratory. Sponer and Birge extended the technique developed by Sponer to measure heats of dissociation in iodine, ordinarily masked by excited states, to other nonpolar molecules and developed the Birge-Sponer method for measuring these quantities. With John J. Hopfield, Birge discovered the Birge-Hopfield systems of bands, Birge was not, however, capable of reinterpreting this work in the light of quantum mechanics, which he found un congenial to his imagination: “I still believe in pic tures, for the sake of the experiments, whether they are true or not,” he wrote to Edwin C Kemble. “I think an approximately true picture may be of more use to the advancement of science than a more accurately true mathematical structure that is too abstruse for many investigators to profit by.”

A by-product of the molecular spectra work was the discovery of several important isotopic species including two new heavy isotopes of oxygen, O18 and O17, by W. F. Giauque, using data and analysis supplied by Birge, who also calculated the relative masses of the new isotopes. Their discovery had radical consequences for chemistry, for atomic weight determinations had been based upon the atomic weight of oxygen. Recalculating the values of atomic weights showed a discrepancy with the atomic weight of hydrogen, which Birge and Donald Menzel, a Lick Observatory astronomer, suggested might be due to a heavy hydrogen isotope composing about 1 part in 4, 500 in hydrogen gas of mass l. This suggestion contributed to the discovery of deuterium by Harold Urey in 1931. Birge also discovered carbon 13 through an analysis of a faint band in vacuum electric furnace spectra from Mount Wilson that he confirmed by using his own carbon monoxide absorption spectra.

Birge built not only a research group but also a department. Under department chairmen E. Percival Lewis and Elmer E. Hall, Birge and Leonard Loeb were given extraordinary latitude in building up departmental research through recruiting, special funds from the university’s Board of Research, and active patronage from G. N. Lewis’ College of Chemistry and University of California President W. W. Campbell, Together they brought the department such luminaries as Ernest Lawrence, Robert Brode. and Harvey White. Succeeding Hall as chairman in 1933. Birge sustained this tradition throughout the Great Depression. Edwin M. McMillan and Luis Alvarez, both of whom were later Nobel Prize winners, were added to the department in these years. The University of Californi.i Radiation Laboratory was an offshoot of the department.

Although many depaitment chairmen sacrifice research to administration, Birge found a new field in which he distinguished himself: the establishment, by the latest experimental. calculational, and statistical techniques, of the values of the general physical constants. This work began with his studies of the most probable value of the Planck constant and became a focus of his activity when he compiled a table of constants for diatomic molecules for the International Critical Tables in 1928. In older to synthesize the reported experimental observations of these values, Birge developed the Birge-Bond diagram to plot them and introduced the method of least squares into error analysis. He was led from this to a study of the fundamentals of statistical error analysis in collaboration with W. Edwards Deming of the Fixed Nitrogen Laboratory. His interest in statistics extended to his administrative relations with the Berkeley mathematics department, where he was instrumental in securing statistician Jerzy Neyman in 1938.

Birge was an important institution builder in an age when the institutions of science were growing as never before. The patronage he gave to Ernest Lawrence and others who built the first of the modern academic accelerator laboratories, now the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, was crucial to the emergence of modern “big science.”


I. Original Works. Birge’s writings include “The Most Probable Value of the Planck Constant h.” in Physcial Review, 2nd ser., 14 (1919) 361–368; “Electronic Bands,” in Edwin C. Kemble et al. “Molecular Spectra in Gases: Report of the Committee on Radiation in Gases,” in Bulletin of the National Research Council, II (December 1926), 69–259; “The Heal of Dissociation og Non-Polar Molecules, as Determined fiom Hand Spectra, and from Other Sources,” in Physical Review. 2nd ser. 27 (1926). 640–641, written with Hertha Sponer; “The Heat of Dissociation of Nonpolar Molecules,” ibid., 28 (1926). 259–283, written with Hertha Sponer; “Further Evidence of the Carbon Isotope, Mass 13,” in Nature, 124 (1929), 182, and in Physical Review, 2nd ser., 34 (1929), 376; “An Isotope of Carbon. Mass 13,” in Nature, 124 (1929), 127, and in Physical Review, 2nd ser. 34 (1929), 376; “Molecular Constants Derived from Band Spectra of Diatomic Molecules,” in International Critical Tables, V (1929), 409–418; “Probable Values of the General Physical Constants,” in Physical Review Supplement, 1 (July 1929), 1–73; “Recent Work on Isotopes in Band Spectra,” in Transactions of the Faraday Society, 25 (1929), 718–725; “Evidence from Band Spectra of the Existence of a Carbon Isotope of Mass 13,” in Astrophysical Journal, 72 (1930), 19–40, written with Arthur S. King; “Precision Determination of the Mass Ratio of Oxygen 18 and 16,” in Physical Review, 2nd ser., 37 (1931), 233. written with H. D. Babcock; “The Relative Abundance of the Oxygen Isotopes, and the Basis of the Atomic Weight System,” ibid., 1669–1671, written with Donald Menzel; “On the Statistical Theory of Errors,” in Reviews of Modern Physics, 6 , no. 3 (1934), 119–161, written with W, Edwards Deming; “Physics and Physicists of the Past Fifty Years,” in Physics Today, 9 no. 5 (1956), 20–28, which describes his educational experiences: “History of the Physics Department, University of California, Berkeley,” 5 vols. (Berkeley, 1966), typescript; and “Physics,” in Verne A. Stadtman, ed., The Centennial Record of the University of California (Berkeley, 1967), 97.

Birge’s papers are collection 73/79C, Bancroft Library Manuscripts Division, University of California at Berkeley. Some of his correspondence is in Sources for History of Quantum Physics, Berkeley.

II. Secondary Literature. On Birge see Edna Tartual Daniel, “Interview with Raymond Thayer Birge, Physicist” (Berkeley, 1960), in the Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library; and Robert W. Seidel, “The Origins of Physics Research in California,” in Journal of College Science Teaching, 6 , no. I (1976), 10–23, and “Physics Research in California; The Rise of a Leading Sector in American Physics” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, 1978).

Writings related to Birge’s work include Harold D. Babcock, “Some New Features of the Atmospheric Absorption Bands, and the Relative Abundance of Isotopes O16, O18,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 15 (1929), 471–477. and “Relative Abundance of the Isotopes of Oxygen,” in Physical Review, 2nd ser., 34 (1929), 540–541; Harold D. Babcock and G. H. Dieke, “The Structure of the Atmospheric Absorption Bands of Oxygen,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 13 (1927), 670–678; W. F. Giauque, “An Isotope of Mass 17 in the Earth’s Atmosphere,” in Nature, 123 (1929), 831; W. E. Giauque and H. L. Johnston, “An Isotope of Oxygen, Mass 18,” in Nature, 123 (1929), 318; and Harold C. Urey, F. G. Brickwedde, and G. M. Murphy, “A Hydrogen Isotope of Mass 2,” in Physical Review, 2nd ser., 39 (1932), 164–165.

Robert W. Seidel