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Eugene Paul "E. P." Wigner (November 17, 1902 – January 1, 1995), was a Hungarian American theoretical 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 notable 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. 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. Wigner is also important for his work in pure mathematics, having authored a number of theorems. In particular, Wigner's theorem is a cornerstone in the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics.
Werner Heisenberg and Eugene Wigner (1928)
Wigner Jenő Pál was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary on November 17, 1902, to middle class Jewish parents, Elisabeth (Einhorn) and Anthony Wigner, a leather tanner. He had an older sister, Bertha, known as Biri, and a younger sister Margit, known as Manci, who later married British theoretical physicist Paul Dirac. He was home schooled by a professional teacher until the age of 9, when he started school at the third grade. During this period, Wigner developed an interest in mathematical problems. At the age of 11, Wigner contracted what his doctors believed to be tuberculosis. His parents sent him to live for six weeks in a sanatorium in the Austrian mountains, before the doctors concluded that the diagnosis was mistaken.
Wigner's family was Jewish, but not religiously observant, and his Bar Mitzvah was a secular one. From 1915 through 1919, he studied at the Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium, the school his father had attended. Religious education was compulsory, and he attended classes in Judaism taught by a rabbi. A fellow student was János von Neumann, who was a year behind Wigner. 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 fled 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. Wigner explained later in his life that his family decision to convert to Lutheranism "was not at heart a religious decision but an anti-communist one". On religious views, Wigner was an atheist.
After graduating from the gimnázium in 1920, Wigner enrolled at the Budapest University of Technical Sciences, known as the Műegyetem. He was not happy with the courses on offer, and in 1921 enrolled at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin (today the Technische Universität Berlin), where he studied chemical engineering. 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 Leó Szilárd, 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 Electrochemistry (now the Fritz Haber Institute), and there he met Michael Polanyi, who became, after László Rátz, Wigner's greatest teacher. Polanyi supervised Wigner's DSc thesis, Bildung und Zerfall von Molekülen ("Formation and Decay of Molecules").
Wigner returned to Budapest, where he went to work at his father's tannery, but in 1926, he accepted an offer from Karl Weissenberg at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. Weissenberg wanted someone to assist him with his work on x-ray crystallography, and Polanyi had recommended Wigner. After six months as Weissenberg's assistant, Wigner went to work for Richard Becker for two semesters. Wigner explored quantum mechanics, studying the work of Erwin Schrödinger. He also delved into the group theory of Ferdinand Frobenius and Eduard Ritter von Weber.
Wigner received a request from Arnold Sommerfeld to work in Göttingen as an assistant to the great mathematician David Hilbert. This proved a disappointment, as Hilbert's interests had shifted to logic. Wigner nonetheless studied independently. He laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics and in 1927 introduced what is now known as the Wigner D-matrix. Wigner and Hermann Weyl were responsible for introducing group theory into quantum mechanics. The latter had written a standard text, Group Theory and Quantum Mechanics (1928), but it was not easy to understand, especially for younger physicists. Wigner's Group Theory and Its Application to the Quantum Mechanics of Atomic Spectra (1931) made group theory accessible to a wider audience.
In the late 1930s, Wigner extended his research into atomic nuclei. He developed an important general theory of nuclear reactions, the Wigner–Eisenbud R-matrix theory, published in 1947. By 1929, his papers were drawing notice in the world of physics. In 1930, Princeton University recruited Wigner for a one-year lectureship, at 7 times the salary that he had been drawing in Europe. Princeton recruited von Neumann at the same time. Wigner and von Neumann had collaborated on three papers together in 1928 and two in 1929. They anglicized their first names to "Eugene" and "John", respectively. When their year was up, Princeton offered a five-year contract as visiting professors for half the year. The Technische Hochschule responded with a teaching assignment for the other half of the year. This was very timely, since the Nazis soon rose to power in Germany. At Princeton in 1934, Wigner introduced his sister Manci to the physicist Paul Dirac, whom she married.
Princeton did not rehire Wigner when his contract ran out in 1936. Through Gregory Breit, Wigner found new employment at the University of Wisconsin. There he met his first wife, Amelia Frank, who was a physics student there. However she died unexpectedly in 1937, leaving Wigner distraught. He therefore accepted a 1938 offer from Princeton to return there. Wigner became a naturalized citizen of the United States on January 8, 1937, and he brought his parents to the United States.
Although he was a professed political amateur, on August 2, 1939, he introduced Leó Szilárd to Albert Einstein for a meeting that resulted in the Einstein-Szilárd letter which urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to initiate the Manhattan Project to develop atomic bombs. Wigner remained fearful of the Germans acquiring an atomic bomb after the war began, and even refused to have his fingerprints taken because he feared they would be used to track him down if Germany won. "Thoughts of being murdered," he later recalled, "focus your mind wonderfully."
On June 4, 1941, Wigner married his second wife, Mary Annette Wheeler, a professor of physics at Vassar College, who had completed her Ph.D. at Yale University in 1932. They remained married until her death in 1977. They had two children, David Wigner and Martha Wigner Upton (1944-2011).
During the Manhattan Project, Wigner led a team that included Alvin Weinberg, Katherine Way, Gale Young and Edward Creutz. The group's task was to design the production nuclear reactors that would convert uranium into weapons grade plutonium. At the time, reactors existed only on paper, and no reactor had yet gone critical. In July 1942, Wigner chose a conservative 100 MW design, with a graphite neutron moderator and water cooling. Wigner was present at a converted rackets court under the stands at the University of Chicago's abandoned Stagg Field on December 2, 1942, when the world's first atomic reactor, Chicago Pile One (CP-1) achieved a nuclear chain reaction (a critical reaction).
Wigner was disappointed that DuPont was given responsibility for the detailed design of the reactors, not just their construction. He threatened to resign in February 1943, but was talked out of it by the head of the Metallurgical Laboratory, Arthur Compton, who sent him on vacation instead. As it turned out, a design decision by DuPont to give the reactor additional load tubes for more uranium saved the project when neutron poisoning became a problem. During the 1950s, he would even work for DuPont on the Savannah River Site. Wigner did not regret working on the Manhattan Project, and sometimes wished the atomic bomb had been ready a year earlier.
In 1945, Wigner accepted a position as the Director of Research at the Clinton Laboratory (now the Oak Ridge National Laboratory) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. When the newly created Atomic Energy Commission took charge of the laboratory's operations at the start of 1947, Wigner feared that many of the technical decisions would be made in Washington. He also saw the Army's continuation of wartime security policies at the laboratory as a "meddlesome oversight", interfering with research. Feeling unsuited to a managerial role in such an environment, he left Oak Ridge at the end of summer in 1947 and returned to Princeton University. He maintained a consulting role with the facility for many years. In the postwar period he served on a number of government bodies, including the National Bureau of Standards from 1947 to 1951, the mathematics panel of the National Research Council from 1951 to 1954, the physics panel of the National Science Foundation, and the influential General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1952 to 1957 and again from 1959 to 1964. He also contributed to civil defense.
In 1960, Wigner published a now classic article on the philosophy of mathematics and of physics, which has become his best-known work outside of technical mathematics and physics, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. He argued that biology and cognition could be the origin of physical concepts, as we humans perceive them, and that the happy coincidence that mathematics and physics were so well matched, seemed to be "unreasonable" and hard to explain. His reasoning was resisted by the Harvard mathematician Andrew M. Gleason.
In 1963, Wigner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. He professed to never have considered the possibility that this might occur, and he added: "I never expected to get my name in the newspapers without doing something wicked." Wigner also won the Enrico Fermi award in 1958, and the National Medal of Science in 1969. In 1968 he gave the Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture. In 1992, at the age of 90, Wigner published a memoir, The Recollections of Eugene P. Wigner with Andrew Szanton. Wigner died three years later in Princeton, New Jersey. One of his significant students was Abner Shimony. Wigner's third wife was Eileen Clare-Patton Hamilton Wigner ("Pat") (1915–2010), the widow of another physicist, Donald Ross Hamilton, the Dean of the Graduate School at Princeton University who had died in 1972.
Near the end of his life, Wigner's thoughts turned more philosophical. In his memoirs, Wigner said: "The full meaning of life, the collective meaning of all human desires, is fundamentally a mystery beyond our grasp. As a young man, I chafed at this state of affairs. But by now I have made peace with it. I even feel a certain honor to be associated with such a mystery." He became interested in the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism, particularly its ideas of the universe as an all pervading consciousness. In his collection of essays Symmetries and Reflections – Scientific Essays, he commented "It was not possible to formulate the laws (of quantum theory) in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness."
Wigner also conceived the Wigner's friend thought experiment in physics, which is an extension of the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. The Wigner's friend experiment asks the question: "At what stage does a 'measurement' take place?" Wigner designed the experiment to highlight how he believed that consciousness is necessary to the quantum-mechanical measurement processes.