October 19, 2010

Hans Bethe: The Stellar Nuclear Physicist That Advocated Peace

Print More

Born in Strasbourg, Germany in 1906, Hans Bethe grew up fascinated by the world of physics.  After studying at the Goethe University of Frankfurt, Bethe earned his doctorate from the University of Munich, where he met his lifelong mentor, Arnold Sommerfeld.  Though Bethe enjoyed his life in Germany, the German Reich became an unsettling threat to his work.  As the Nazi party ascended to power in 1933, Bethe made his way to the US.

Bethe plunged into academic life at Cornell. His efforts transformed the physics department, with only fifteen faculty-members, into one of the country’s main centers for physics research.  He strove to transform the discipline, changing the department into a “Physics Community,” where collaboration was key.

Over 70 years at Cornell, Bethe’s work flourished – he published over 300 papers.  One 1938 paper explained how stars release energy and light by fusing hydrogen into helium.  This work was groundbreaking, and it earned him the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics.

In 1943, when the turmoil in Europe reached a breaking point and World War II commenced, the US government called Bethe to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the site of the secret Manhattan Project – the top-secret military endeavor that created the first nuclear weapons. His collaboration ultimately ended the war.

Bethe’s contributions to nuclear physics did not end with the dropping of the atomic bombs.  Their aftermath changed Bethe’s views of nuclear weapons, and he became a public advocate for civilian control of nuclear energy and international restraint.

After his work in Los Alamos, Bethe returned to Cornell, bringing several his Manhatten Project colleagues along, including Richard Feynman, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Though he was offered other prestigious positions, he chose to stay at the university and educate a new generation of physicists.  He spent his time teaching, collecting stamps, and riding his bike around the particle accelerator. As many would note, Bethe was one of Cornell’s most beloved scientists.

Original Author: Nicholas St. Fleur