Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

March 8, 2005

In Memoriam, Hans Bethe

Filed under: — Different River @ 6:30 pm

Hans Bethe, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, passed away yesterday at his home in Ithaca, NY. He was 98. From the Cornell University press release via SpaceRef.com:

At his death, Bethe was emeritus professor of physics at Cornell University, the institution he joined in 1935 after fleeing Nazi Germany because his mother was Jewish. He was one of the most honored members of the faculty in the university’s 140-year history for his work in revolutionizing our perception of the real world. But he was equally admired for his reputation for integrity, humility and concern that made him the conscience of science.

Bethe’s fellow Nobel laureate, physicist Robert C. Richardson, who is Cornell’s vice provost for research, said; “Hans Bethe was a giant of 20th century science. He has been revered by his Cornell colleagues. He left profound and enduring marks of his intellectual leadership on Cornell, the United States, and the entire world. Bethe had an important influence upon me as a young faculty member when I arrived at Cornell in 1966. He demonstrated a clarity of thought that I could only hope to emulate some day.”

“Science is always more unsolved questions, and its great advantage is that you can prove something is true or something is false. You can’t do that about human affairs — most human things can be right from one point of view and wrong from another,” he once said.

Despite the turmoil of history, Bethe remained committed to the idea of physics as a thing of beauty leading to discovery and understanding, a quest that he called “the spirit of physics.” It was a spirit enunciated by his famously optimistic phrase “I can do that,” always said in the face of opposition or adversity. Salpeter noted that Bethe’s optimism sprang from knowing how to use the minimum mathematical complexity compatible with each problem he faced. “In his hands, approximations were not a loss of elegance but a device to bring out the basic simplicity and beauty of each field,” he said.

During World War II Bethe was a key figure in the building of the first atomic bomb as head of the theoretical physics division at Los Alamos. Bethe would later recall how “two elder statesmen” told J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, ” ‘Look here, you can’t run the theoretical division if you run the laboratory at the same time, and there has to be a theoretical division. It has to be organized. And so the obvious person to put in charge of the theoretical division is Bethe.’ ”

Bethe was truly indefatigable. In his 90s, with his left arm and shoulder wasted by a degenerative muscle disease, he continued to arrive regularly at his office at the Newman Laboratory on the Cornell campus although, he admitted, “not every day do I find anything interesting.” Every day began with a 45-minute hot bath, because, he said, “You sleep, and things get somewhat unscrambled in your mind; then in the bath, I can become conscious of that.” And he always carried with him his old slide rule on which he could with ease perform calculations to the sixth power.

Bethe’s father, a professor of physiology, was a Protestant, but his mother was Jewish. This brought him into conflict with Nazi race laws after Hitler came to power, and Bethe was dismissed from his post at the University of Tubingen. He left Germany, going first to England, then to the United States and Cornell in 1935.

It was Bethe who propelled Cornell’s physics department into the top rank. And it was at Cornell during the late 1930s that he wrote his famous reviews of nuclear physics and, in 1938, published his seminal paper on the theory of energy production in stars that explained how the sun shines. The work was to win him the Nobel Prize in 1967.

During his years as a physicist he published papers in every decade from the 1920s through the 2000s. In 1995 Bethe’s colleagues, students and friends marked his 60 years at Cornell with a two-day tribute to his life and work. “If you know his work,” said John Bahcall of the Institute for Advanced Study, delivering his own appreciation, “you might be inclined to think he is really several people, all of whom are engaged in a conspiracy to sign their work with the same name.”

Hans Bethe is yet another example of how Hitler’s antisemitic zeal killed not only Jews, but the Germany’s status as a leader in science research.

One Response to “In Memoriam, Hans Bethe”

  1. Cornell Says:

    Hans Bethe, Deceased
    Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe, famous for piecing together the foundations of modern physics, as well as work on the atomic bomb, passed away. On of Cornell’s own, he passed away in his Ithaca home, 98 years old.

    For more information about Hans Be…

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress