Eugene Paul Wigner - Champion of a Peaceful Use of the Atom

The life of Eugene Paul Wigner, like that of so many scientists of Jewish origin, proved to be a remarkable one. Though a comparatively small country, Hungary produced an extraordinary number of people of genius in the 20th century. In the area of modern physics these were Edward Teller, Leó Szilárd and Jenö Pál (Eugene Paul) Wigner. All three were born in Budapest, studied in Germany and emigrated after 1933 to the United States of America. The anti-Semitism of the Nazis forced many of the leading scientific brains of the “Old World” into exile.

From Budapest to Berlin

Eugene Paul Wigner was born on 17 November 1902 as the son of a leather manufacturer. After completing his schooling, he wanted to study physics, but his father tried to convince him otherwise: “Just how many physicists do you really think Hungary needs today?” After World War I, the country was in a catastrophic state. Intolerance and repression were everywhere and there was little creativity in intellectual life. Wigner started studying chemistry in Budapest, but soon switched to Technische Hochschule zu Berlin. He also attended lectures given by Walter Nernst, Max Planck and Albert Einstein at Berliner Universität (later Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin). His personal contact to Einstein and Leó Szilárd during this period helped intensify his involvement in modern physics.

Focus on quantum mechanics

After completing his doctorate in chemistry, Wigner returned to Budapest to work as an engineer in his father’s business. He had little or no hope of pursuing a scientific career at this stage. But then something remarkable happened. In 1926, Professor Richard Becker found him a position as assistant for physics at Technische Hochschule zu Berlin. Following the appointment of Gustav Hertz as professor, Technische Hochschule zu Berlin was regarded as one of the leading technical universities in Germany. Despite the pitiful salary he was offered, Wigner accepted the position and devoted himself to the topic of quantum mechanics. During this period he also went to Göttingen, where Werner Heisenberg, the father of quantum mechanics, was lecturing. Wigner completed his Habilitation at Technische Hochschule zu Berlin in 1928.

International research

Wigner also began to achieve an international reputation and in 1930 he was offered a fixed-term part-time professorship at Princeton. At the same time, he was appointed extraordinary professor at Technische Hochschule zu Berlin. Wigner, now aged 28, divided his time between the two universities. In 1933 his book on quantum mechanics and group theory finally appeared. This work, for which he would receive the Nobel Prize 30 years later, represented a real milestone in the area of quantum mechanics.

Years of destiny

1933 was also the year that would define Wigner’s destiny. The Nazis removed him from his position at Technische Hochschule zu Berlin on the basis of his Jewish ancestry. He was under no illusions regarding Hitler’s intentions and decided to remain in the United States of America. He took American citizenship in 1937. After working as a professor in Wisconsin, he returned to Princeton in 1938 to conduct research in the area of quantum mechanics and nuclear physics. In 1941 Wigner, Teller and Szilárd approached Einstein to request him to warn President Roosevelt of the possibility of Germany developing atomic bombs. Working with Szilárd, Wigner developed a theory of nuclear chain reactions and took part in the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. He was also involved in the development of the Hanford reactor at the University of Chicago, which was to later provide plutonium for atomic bombs.

Nobel Prize for Physics

After the war Wigner championed a peaceful use of the atom. In 1963, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics together with J. Hans D. Jensen and Maria Goeppert-Mayer. Eugene Wigner died on 1 January 1995 in Princeton, where he was also laid to rest. The new physics building at Technische Universität Berlin is named after him.