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Eugene Paul Wigner

(1902—1995)


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(1902–1995)

Hungarian-born US physicist, who was awarded the 1963 Nobel Prize for Physics for his introduction of the concept of parity into nuclear physics.

The son of a Budapest businessman, Wigner was educated at the Berlin Technische Hochschule, where he obtained a doctorate in engineering. After a short period at Göttingen University, Wigner moved to the USA in 1930 and taught mathematical physics at Princeton before being appointed Thomas D. Jones Professor of Mathematical Physics, a post he held from 1938 until his retirement in 1971. Wigner became a naturalized US citizen in 1937.

In 1927 Wigner introduced the concept of parity as a property of nuclear reactions that is conserved. A basically mathematical idea relating to certain transformations of the wave function, it has the effect that nuclear processes look the same whether they are observed directly or seen in a mirror. The virtue of Wigner's proposal is that it enables the existence of some processes to be predicted. It was later found (1956) that parity is not conserved in weak interactions.

Wigner joined with his Hungarian colleagues, Szilard and Teller, to persuade Albert Einstein in 1939 to write his famous letter to President Roosevelt advising him of the possibilities of nuclear weapons. During World War II Wigner himself worked on the bomb in Chicago and after the war briefly was director (1946–47) of the Atomic Energy Commission's laboratory at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics — History.


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