Prize Winning Physicist Hans Bethe
Dead at 98
March 8, 2005
ITHACA, N.Y. - Hans
Bethe, a giant of 20th-century physics who played a central role in the
building of the atomic bomb and won a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1967
for discovering the process that powers the sun and the stars, has died
Bethe, ( pronounced
BAY-tuh) stood alongside such figures as Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer,
Leo Szilard and Edward Teller as a member of the corps of scientists who
ushered in the atomic age.
World War II race to build the bomb, Bethe was head of the Manhattan Project's
theoretical physics division at Los Alamos, N.M.
was the last of the giants of Los Alamos," said Gerald Brown, a physics
professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
fled Nazi Germany and joined the Cornell University faculty in 1935, also
made major discoveries about how atoms are built up from smaller particles,
about what makes dying stars blow up, and how the heavier elements are
produced from the ashes of these supernovas.
a scientific breakthrough every decade or so, beginning during the golden
age of physics between the world wars.
played key roles in the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty and the 1972 anti-ballistic
the A-bomb designers knew its calamitous potential, the weapon's reality
"was worse than we expected," Bethe reflected in an interview
with The Associated Press in 1996. "After Hiroshima, many of us said:
`Let's see that it doesn't happen again.'"
the things that was very special about Hans was his strong moral motivation,"
said astrophysicist John Bahcall of the Institute for Advanced Study in
Princeton, N.J. "He did things because he believed they were right
and not because they were convenient or helpful to him or promoted his
career. His work on the bomb was motivated by a desire to preserve freedom
and open society in the face of a spreading Nazi tyranny, which he knew
Born in Strasbourg
in 1906, Bethe fled Germany in 1933 after losing a university post because
his mother was Jewish.
in an era bursting with discoveries about the fundamental building blocks
of matter. In the infancy of modern atomic theory, he spelled out what
was known and unknown in nuclear physics in a classic series of papers
dubbed Bethe's Bible.
He also investigated
the structure of atoms, molecules and solids, devised techniques for calculating
the properties of nuclear matter and laid the groundwork for the development
of quantum electrodynamics.
In 1938, leading
nuclear physicists were invited to solve a mystery that had long stumped
the best scientific minds: the source of the sun's energy. Just six weeks
later, Bethe came up with his "carbon cycle" formula: He showed
that virtually all the energy produced by the most brilliant stars stems
from a fusion reaction in which hydrogen serves as the fuel and carbon
as the catalyst.
like a bulldozer," Brown said. "If he ran into a temporary wall,
he would just go around it. With his immense confidence and his knowledge,
he was arguably the most powerful scientist of the century."
from teaching in 1975, Bethe turned to astrophysics, a field he previously
had only dipped into. With his grasp of so many areas of theoretical physics,
Bethe was persuaded by Brown, an astrophysicist, to delve into the mysteries
of mighty star explosions, or supernovae. They collaborated on a 1979
paper that upended long-held assumptions about the density of a collapsing
Bethe worked into
his 90s at Cornell University's Newman Laboratory of Nuclear Studies,
devoting many solitary afternoons to his passion: numbers.
At Bethe's zenith,
his mind was a wonder to behold. He could not program the simplest computer,
but had no trouble digesting reams of supercomputer readouts. For help,
he reached into his briefcase for a slide rule he had carried around for
Science had fascinated
Bethe since boyhood.
"You see, most
philosophical questions were quite well answered by the old Greeks, and
even better by people from 1500 to 1800," he said. As for deciphering
human character, "I don't think Shakespeare has ever been surpassed."
always more unsolved questions, and its great advantage is 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
"It is the most
wonderful feeling when you come to a real answer. This is it, and this
is correct! In science, you know you know."
include his wife, Rose; a son, Henry; a daughter, Monica; and three grandchildren.