March 14, 2005

The Sun Remembers Hans Bethe, 1906-2005

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“A beloved mentor to generations of Cornell physicists, whose efforts helped to transform the Cornell University Physics Department into one of the world’s great centers of physics.”

This statement formed the last line of the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Medal award citation which was posthumously awarded to famed physicist and Cornell University Professor Emeritus and Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe last Wednesday. The sentiments present in the award have been echoed time and again by those who knew Bethe both personally and by reputation only.

“He was a great man … we have an enormous debt to Hans Bethe here at Cornell,” said Robert Richardson, vice provost for research.

Bethe passed away on the evening of March 6 at his home in Ithaca at the age of 98. His age did not limit his drive to push back the frontiers of physics, however. Bethe continued to publish papers straight through the turn of the century, and can lay claim to papers published in every decade since he first began his research.

The body of knowledge that comprises Bethe’s work spans numerous areas of physics. Contributions were made to solid state physics, quantum electrodynamics and astrophysics.

Among his myriad accomplishments, “the energy cycle in the sun that determines how the sun develops its energy … surely has to be one of the greatest” of his achievements, said Cornell University President Emeritus Dale Corson.

Bethe’s more recent work focused on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO).

Richardson explained Bethe’s this work: “[Bethe] wrote a paper … in which he was predicting the rate of occurrence of collapse in stars that would be a large enough collapse to be detected by LIGO.”

LIGO operates by attempting to detect minute gravitational ripples formed by cataclysmic events in space such as supernovae.

Corson said that “one of [Bethe’s best] qualities was his ability to deal in the political scheme. He was a conscience of science, but he was also a very clear formulator of what the consequences of certain activities might be, and explaining [those consequences] to the politicians.”

This ability to explain the finer points of science to politicians served Bethe well in his role as head of the theoretical physics division of the Manhattan Project.

Bethe’s involvement with nuclear arms extended far beyond the Manhattan Project itself. He was deeply committed to nuclear arms control and served on the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee through three administrations — from Eisenhower to Johnson — where he advised the President on nuclear non-proliferation and further atomic weapon development.

Bethe’s research at Cornell after his work on the Manhattan Project helped propel the Cornell physics department into elite ranks.

“I was attracted to Cornell because of the department that he was responsible for having built up,” said Richardson.

He added that “[Bethe] had a lot of important traits which he communicated to people and one was: no compromise with honesty and excellence.”

Bethe was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1967.

One area of recent note in Bethe’s research was his work on the neutrino. Bethe’s theoretical work on how the sun creates energy predicted a large number of extremely low-mass particles known as neutrinos as by-products of the nuclear fusion in the sun. There was recently a surge of interest in detecting these elusive particles, and Bethe actively participated in the research. Such participation in the most innovative areas of physics has been a trademark of Bethe’s research, and it comes as no surprise that such a passion was maintained even as Bethe entered his 90s.

“Cornell has lost a beloved teacher, mentor, and friend,” remarked President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 in a press release. Bethe’s life has left a large mark on the science of physics, the politics of nuclear armaments, and Cornell University as a whole.

Archived article by Bryan Wolin
Sun Contributor