Eugene Wigner

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Eugene Paul "E. P." Wigner (Hungarian Wigner Jenő Pál; November 17, 1902 – January 1, 1995) was a Hungarian American physicist and mathematician.

He received a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 "for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles"; the other half of the award was shared between Maria Goeppert-Mayer and J. Hans D. Jensen. Wigner is important for having laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics as well as for his research into the structure of the atomic nucleus, and for his several mathematical theorems. It was Eugene Wigner who first identified Xe-135 "poisoning" in nuclear reactors, and for this reason it is sometimes referred to as Wigner poisoning.[1]

Contents

Early life

Wigner was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, into a middle class Jewish family. At the age of 11, Wigner contracted what his parents believed to be tuberculosis. They sent him to live for six weeks in a sanitarium in the Austrian mountains. During this period, Wigner developed an interest in mathematical problems. From 1915 through 1919, together with John von Neumann, Wigner studied at the Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium, where they both benefited from the instruction of the noted mathematics teacher László Rátz. In 1919, to escape the Béla Kun communist regime, the Wigner family briefly moved to Austria, returning to Hungary after Kun's downfall. Partly as a reaction to the prominence of Jews in the Kun regime, the family converted to Lutheranism.[2]

In 1921, Wigner studied chemical engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin (today the Technische Universität Berlin). He also attended the Wednesday afternoon colloquia of the German Physical Society. These colloquia featured such luminaries as Max Planck, Max von Laue, Rudolf Ladenburg, Werner Heisenberg, Walther Nernst, Wolfgang Pauli, and Albert Einstein. Wigner also met the physicist Leo Szilard, who at once became Wigner's closest friend. A third experience in Berlin was formative. Wigner worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Elektrochemistry (now the Fritz Haber Institute), and there he met Michael Polanyi, who became, after László Rátz, Wigner's greatest teacher.

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