Eugene Wigner is one of a generation of physicists of the 1920s who remade the world of physics. It was a collection of men from Berlin to London to Zurich to Pisa, though not quite yet to New York or Chicago. The first physicists in this new generation--Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, and Paul Dirac, to name three--created quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics was a dazzling new world, which threw open dozens of fundamental physical questions. A new set of men (and a few women) came along behind them, to answer the first questions and pose others, often more complex.
Eugene Wigner was in this second set of physicists. He posed and answered some of the most profound questions of 20th century physics. He laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics. In the late 1930's, he extended his research into atomic nuclei.
Between 1939-1945, this generation of physicists helped to remake the world again. This time it was a far greater, more public world they remade: one of armies, peoples, ideologies. They did it first by seeing that an atomic bomb could be built, and then by arguing that it must be built, in the United States, immediately; and finally by playing the crucial role in getting the bomb built, under terrible pressure.
Eugene Wigner was a giant of atomic bomb production as well.
Wigner was one of a remarkable quartet of Jewish-Hungarian scientists from turn-of-the-century Budapest. The other three were Edward Teller, John von Neumann, and Leo Szilard. Szilard was probably Wigner's best adult friend. Von Neumann was a schoolmate and mentor. Wigner was the only one of the four to win a Nobel Prize.
Eugene Wigner was born in 1902, into a world where middle-class people had no automobiles, radio, gas or electricity -- and did not miss those things. That fact startled and pleased him as an old man.
In 1902, the great scientists of the world were also content without atomic theory, quantum theory or relativity theory. Yet many of the best scientists felt that all the fundamental things of life had already been discovered -- all that remained was to fill in around the edges of the existing scheme.
At 11 years old, Eugene had a brush with tuberculosis, and for six weeks was kept at a sanatarium in the Austrian mountains with his mother. But his childhood was mostly happy. His parents were well-matched and he loved his two sisters intensely. His family culture was serious and stable, with a typical Hungarian love of jokes. He loved to walk as a boy
In the Lutheran Gimnazium, he attended, he had the privilege of learning mathematics from Laszlo Ratz, a devoted scholar and teacher who also tutored Johnny Von Neumann. In 1921, after graduating from Gimnazium, he studied at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin.
Even more important, he 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 -- most of all -- Albert Einstein.
Wigner also met Leo Szilard at the colloquium. Szilard became at once Wigner's closest friend, and a man who remained an enigma and, sometimes, an irritant.
A third experience in Berlin was formative. Wigner worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, and there met Michael Polanyi, who would become, after Laszlo Ratz, Wigner's greatest teacher.
In the late 1920's, Wigner explored deeply in the field of quantum mechanics, then being shaped by Heisenberg, Schrodinger and Dirac, to the mild disapproval of Albert Einstein. A period at Gottingen as an assistant to the great mathematician David Hilbert proved a disappointment, as Hilbert was no longer intellectually active. But Wigner spent many, many hours in the library at Gottingen, and devoted himself to physics.
By 1929, his papers were drawing wide notice in the physics world.
In 1930, Princeton University recruited Wigner and Von Neumann and, with Hitler in power in Germany, Wigner and Von Neumann found safe haven in Princeton, New Jersey, though they still spent half the year in Europe, traveling, studying and teaching.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. A more peaceful, modest man you could not find, but Dr. Wigner was deeply affronted by Adolf Hitler and saw immediately how dangerous he was. In later life, when people thanked him for being so perceptive, he always protested that it took no special perception at all to see Hitler's danger and evil; rather, he felt it took a special perception not to see it.
In Princeton in 1934 Wigner introduced his sister Manci to the physicist Paul Dirac. They married, and the ties between Wigner and Dirac deepened. Wigner also spent time with Albert Einstein, who had come to Princeton to join the Institute For Advanced Study.
In 1936, Princeton did not rehire Wigner, and he moved to the University of Wisconsin. There he met his first wife, a lovely physicst student named Amelia Frank. But Ms. Frank died in 1937, and Wigner, in his grief, wanted to leave Madison. Princeton had done a careful search for a superb young physicist, and the name they kept hearing from people was... Eugene Wigner. They invited him back and he accepted. He rejoined the Princeton faculty in the fall of 1938.
Wigner was one of the hundreds of physicists who joined the Manhattan Project and built the atomic bomb to defend the world against Hitler.
Wigner was sorry to see atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nevertheless, he remained a stolid defender of the U.S. military, a patriot in his adopted country.
He was famous for his gentleness and elaborate courtesy to others. Once as a student, when ants were swarming over his leg and biting him, a friend asked Wigner why he didn't kill the ants. "Because I don't know which ones are biting me," Wigner replied.
In scientific meetings, both formal and informal, when someone proposed something, Wigner often answered simply "I don't understand." He was never pretentious, never afraid to seem foolish.
For a man of science, he was oddly superstitious as well, hating to have 13 bills in his pocket, anxious to knock on a real piece of wood when he heard some good news.
In 1992, at the age of 90, he published a fine memoir, The Recollections of Eugene P. Wigner (assisted by Andrew Szanton.) Dr. Wigner died a year later.
His thought became more philosophical as he aged, and on the last page of his memoir, Dr. Wigner wrote: "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."