Eugene Paul Wigner

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Eugene Paul Wigner (1963)

Eugene Paul Wigner ( Hungarian Wigner Jenő Pál ; born November 17, 1902 in Budapest , † January 1, 1995 in Princeton , New Jersey ) was a Hungarian-American physicist and Nobel Prize winner .

life and work

Wigner was born into a middle-class Jewish family and from 1915 to 1919 attended the humanistic Lutheran grammar school in Budapest together with John von Neumann . He then studied chemical engineering and received his doctorate in 1925 at the Technical University of Berlin under Michael Polanyi with the thesis "Formation and decay of molecules, statistical mechanics and reaction speed". Here he met Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd , among others . In his free time he was intensively involved with physics. As a visitor to the colloquia of the German Physical Society , he was soon familiar with current research issues and developed a predilection for theoretical physics. In 1926 he was initially assistant to Richard Becker at the Technical University of Berlin, today's Technical University of Berlin .

In 1927, Wigner received a request from Arnold Sommerfeld to work at the University of Göttingen as an assistant to the important mathematician David Hilbert . However, this turned out to be a huge disappointment for him because Hilbert was no longer very productive. Nevertheless, Wigner conducted independent research and laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics . During his time in Göttingen, he derived the transformation of angular momentum eigenstates in quantum mechanics during rotation ( Wigner's D matrix ). Wigner and Hermann Weyl were responsible for the introduction of group theory as a mathematical method in quantum mechanics. This was later (1928) a generally valid formulation in the publication Group Theory and Quantum Mechanics , but was not easy to understand, especially among younger physicists. Wigner's later publication in 1931, Group Theory and its Application to Quantum Mechanics of Atomic Spectra , made group theory more accessible to a wider readership.

1928 returned Wigner returned to Berlin to be there at the Technical University habilitated , and in 1930 appointed a non-tenured associate professor of theoretical physics. In the early 1930s, Wigner went to the United States and worked in Princeton from 1931. Because of his Jewish origins, he lost his position at the TH Berlin after the National Socialist seizure of power and finally moved to the USA. Apart from two years 1936/37 as a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin , he spent his academic life at Princeton University as a professor of mathematics from 1938 until his retirement in 1971. In 1937 he took on the American citizenship. His students at Princeton included Frederick Seitz , later president of the National Academy of Sciences and Rockefeller University , and John Bardeen , the inventor of the transistor and two-time Nobel Prize winner in physics.

Eugene Paul Wigner (1928)

Wigner was a scientific pioneer who laid the foundation for the application of group theory in physics in the late 1920s. His representation theory of the Poincaré group was also groundbreaking in mathematics. Together with his Hungarian compatriot Leó Szilárd , he also developed the theory of the nuclear chain reaction and was involved in the American atomic bomb project in Los Alamos , fearing that Hitler would have such a bomb built. In the Manhattan project , Wigner planned the construction of the first industrial reactor that incubated plutonium as a bomb-proof material. Edward Teller , John von Neumann and Leó Szilárd also worked with him . All four scientists were of Hungarian descent and were referred to by their American colleagues as " Martians " because of their "unearthly" intellectual abilities .

In addition to numerous terms that explicitly bear his name, see below, he implicitly “generated” numerous fundamental techniques in the entire field of theoretical physics: Among other things, the widely used theory of random matrices can be traced back to him because he created the spectra of highly excited atomic nuclei in this way and divided according to their symmetry property into symplectic or unitary or orthogonal symmetry classes. The theory later experienced a renaissance within the framework of the theory of quantum chaos .

On May 18, 1960, Wigner was awarded the Atoms for Peace Award together with Szilárd, the Max Planck Medal in 1961 and the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 together with J. Hans D. Jensen and Maria Goeppert-Mayer . He received the award for his numerous contributions to nuclear physics , including his formulation of the law of conservation of parity ("for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and elementary particles , especially through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles") . Nobel laureate Wigner was popular and revered for his humble and reserved manner.

His versatility was enormous: with Gian-Carlo Wick and Arthur Wightman , for example, he introduced super-selection rules and the internal parity of elementary particles in 1956 .

Wigner also made philosophical thoughts about physics and its relationship to mathematics. His essay The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences has become proverbial. His thought experiment, Wigner's friend , represents a subjectivist interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Awards and honors

Göttingen memorial plaque for the physicist Eugene Paul Wigner on Wilhelm-Weber-Straße 22
Memorial plaque on the house, Hardenbergstrasse 36, in Berlin-Charlottenburg

Since 1945 he was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and since 1951 of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences . In 1944 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society and in 1950 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . In 1968 Eugene P. Wigner received the National Medal of Science and in 1972 the Albert Einstein Award .

Since November 24, 2005 a building belonging to the physical institute at the Technical University of Berlin has been named after him.

The Wigner Medal and the Eugene P. Wigner Reactor Physicist Award are named in his honor.

On June 19, 2014, the city of Göttingen honored him with a plaque on Wilhelm-Weber-Strasse 22.


The famous physicist Paul Dirac was married to Wigner's sister Margit.

See also


From Wigner:

  • Group theory and its application in the theory of atomic spectra . Vieweg Verlag, Braunschweig 1931, engl. Academic Press 1959
  • Symmetries and reflections: Scientific Essays . 1967, 1979, MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-73021-9
  • with Leonard Eisenbud : Nuclear structure . 1958, German BI university paperback 1961
  • with Alvin Weinberg: The physical theory of neutron chain reactors . The University of Chicago Press 1958, ISBN 0-226-88517-8
  • Arthur Wightman, Jagdish Mehra (Ed.): The collected works of EPWigner , 8 volumes, Springer Verlag, from 1992:
    • Volume 1, Applied Group Theory, Mathematical Papers (with biography of Mehra), 1993, Volume 2 Nuclear Physics 1996, Volume 3 Particles and Fields / Foundations of Quantum Mechanics 1997, Volume 4 Physical Chemistry / Solid State Physics 1997, Volume 5 Nuclear Energy 1992, Volume 6 Philosophical Reflections and Syntheses 1995, Volume 7 Historical and Biographical Reflections and Syntheses 2001, Volume 8 Socio-Political Reflections and Civil Defense 1998 (Volume 1 to 6 is Series A, Volume 6 to 8 is Series B)
  • The recollections of Eugene Wigner as told to Andrew Szanton , Plenum Press 1992

Some of Wigner's essays online:

About Wigner:

  • Erich Vogt: Eugene Paul Wigner: A Towering Figure of Modern Physics , Physics Today, December 1995
  • David J. Gross : Symmetry in Physics - Wigners legacy in physics , Physics, Today, December 1995
  • Eugene Paul Wigner : Aspects of His Life, Work and Personality , in Jagdish Mehra: The golden age of theoretical physics - World Scientific - Singapore 2001 - ISBN 981-02-4342-1 - Vol. 2 , p. 912-950
  • István Hargittai : The Martians of science - five physicists who changed the twentieth century. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford 2006, ISBN 978-0-19-517845-6


  • Thomas Ammann: The Struggle for Freedom: Six Friends and Their Mission - From Budapest to Manhattan, MDR documentary, 2013

Web links

Commons : Eugene Paul Wigner  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Eugene (Jeno) Paul (Pál) Wigner in Mathematics Genealogy Project (English)Template: MathGenealogyProject / Maintenance / id used Template: MathGenealogyProject / Maintenance / name used
  2. ^ Eugene Wigner: On unitary representations of the inhomogeneous Lorentz group . In: Annals of Mathematics . Volume 40, 1939, p. 141.
  3. ^ Eugene P. Wigner: The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences . In: Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics . Volume 13 (1), 1960, pp. 1-14. Retrieved February 21, 2011.
  4. Holger Krahnke: The members of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen 1751-2001 (= Treatises of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Philological-Historical Class. Volume 3, Vol. 246 = Treatises of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Mathematical-Physical Class. Episode 3, vol. 50). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2001, ISBN 3-525-82516-1 , p. 259.
  5. ^ Member History: Eugene P. Wigner. American Philosophical Society, accessed November 17, 2018 .
  6. ^ Eugene Wigner, 92, Quantum Theorist Who Helped Usher In Atomic Age, Dies (obituary). In: The New York Times , January 4, 1995. Retrieved February 21, 2011. 
  7. Memorial plaque: Memory of Nobel Prize winner Eugene Paul Wigner