Monday, March 07, 2005

bye bye bethe

Hans Bethe died yesterday, four months short of his hundredth birthday.

Hans Bethe

He was one of the greatest physicists ever, one of the giants on whose shoulders a whole generation of Nobel Prize winners stood. His early work on the structure of atomic nuclei laid the foundation of quantum electrodynamics, showed us how stars burn (for which he himself won the Nobel in 1967), and contributed to the development of the atomic bomb.

After losing his teaching position at the University of Tubingen because of his Jewish heritage, Bethe became one of the legion of Smart Germans that gave the US 'the bomb', semiconductors, and advanced alloys. Upon seeing what the bomb was capable of, Bethe was a strong opponent of nuclear weaponry - at one point he wrote an open letter to all scientists calling on them to cease their research on any aspect of nuclear weapons development. His motivation in developing the bomb was to keep it out of the hands of madmen - it is notable then that upon hearing Bush talk about 'safe nucular weapons' and 'bunker busters', he was one of the 48 Nobel laureates who denounced the Bush administration's misuse of science.

He came to the US in 1935 to teach at Cornell, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1999 he gave a series of lectures on both his history and that of quantum dynamics (the two are inextricably entangled) that are very accessible to non-physicists (i.e. very few equations). Quantum physics made relatively simple has these videos in Quicktime format with something I hadn't seen before: the webpage in which the video is embedded refreshes every so often to show the information that is on Dr. Bethe's slides, which aren't visible in the video. The third lecture has the clearest explanation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle I've ever heard.