Wigner, Eugene Paul

Wigner, Eugene Paul
(1902-1995), American physicist and Nobel laureate, noted for his work on
quantum physics and the development of nuclear reactors. Wigner
was born in Budapest, Hungary. He joined the faculty of Princeton University in
1930 and became a U.S. citizen in 1937. He was one of five scientists who
informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 of the possible military use
of atomic energy, and during World War II he helped design plutonium reactors.
He shared the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics for his work in elucidating the
structure of the atomic nucleus and his development of quantum mechanics theory
concerning the nature of the proton and neutron.

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Wigner, Eugene Paul

born Nov. 17, 1902,
Budapest, Hung., Austria-Hungary

died Jan. 1, 1995,
Princeton, N.J., U.S.

Hungarian Jenó Pál Wigner
Hungarian-born American physicist, joint winner, with J. Hans D. Jensen of West
Germany and Maria Goeppert Mayer of the United
States, of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963. He received the prize for his
many contributions to nuclear physics, which include his formulation of the law
of conservation of parity.

Wigner studied chemical
engineering and received his Ph.D. from the Institute of Technology in Berlin
in 1925. After serving as a lecturer thereand at the
University of Göttingen, he went to the United
States. Apart from two years (1936–38) as professor of physics at the University
of Wisconsin, he spent his academic life at Princeton University, serving as a
professor of mathematical physics from 1938 until his retirement in 1971. He
became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1937.

At Göttingen,
Wigner formulated his law of the conservation of
parity, which implies that it is impossible to distinguish left from right in
fundamental physical interactions. This theory became an integral part of
quantum mechanics, but in 1956 the physicists Tsung-Dao
Lee andChen Ning Yang
showed that parity is not always conserved in weak interactions of subatomic
particles. At Princeton, Wigner determined that the
nuclear force that binds neutrons and protons together is necessarily
short-range and independent of any electric charge. He also developed the
principles involved in applying mathematical group theory to investigate the
energy levels of atomic nuclei. In 1936 he worked out the theory of neutron
absorption, which later proved useful in building nuclear reactors.

In 1939, Wigner helped Leo Szilard
persuade Albert Einstein to write the historic letter to President Franklin D.
Roosevelt that set in motion the U.S. atomic-bomb project. During World War II
he worked at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, where
he helped Enrico Fermi construct the first atomic
pile. Wigner also conducted research on quantum
mechanics, the theory of the rates of chemical reactions, and nuclear
structure. His publications include Gruppentheorie
und IhreAnwendung auf die Quantenmechanik
der Atomspektren (1931;
Group Theory and Its Application to the Quantum Mechanics of Atomic Spectra), a
classic text, and Symmetries and Reflections (1967).