Jesse W. Beams

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Jesse Wakefield Beams (born December 25, 1898 in Belle Plaine , Kansas , † July 23, 1977 ) was an American experimental physicist.


Beams was the son of farmers and grew up on a farm. He studied physics and mathematics at Fairmount College in Wichita (bachelor's degree in 1921) and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a master's degree in physics in 1922. He taught physics (and mathematics) at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute for a year . He then went to the University of Virginia , where he received his doctorate in physics in 1925 with Carroll M. Sparrow. The subject of the dissertation was the photoelectric effect (measurement of the time between absorption of the photon and emission of the electron), for which he built rotating mirrors at high speed to generate short light pulses and circuits for measuring very short time intervals. In 1925/26 he was a National Research Fellow. As a post-doctoral student he spent three years with Ernest O. Lawrence (then at Yale University ), with whom he pursued the topics of his dissertation. Even now he could not exactly determine the time interval for the photoelectric effect, but he found an upper limit of three nanoseconds. During this time he was also an instructor at Yale. In 1928 he became associate professor and in 1930 professor at the University of Virginia, where he stayed for the rest of his career, was appointed Francis H. Smith Professor of Physics in 1953 and retired in 1969, but continued research there until his death in 1977. 1948 to 1962 he headed the physics faculty.

He was married to Maxine Sutherland Beams from 1931.


During the Second World War he worked in the Manhattan Project , where he used his ultracentrifuge for uranium enrichment and demonstrated its basic functionality (1941), which was abandoned in the USA in January 1944 in favor of the diffusion method. The gas centrifuge technology was then independently developed to maturity by Gernot Zippe , Max Steenbeck and Soviet scientists and later used in Western Europe for uranium enrichment. Zippe also attended Beams at the University of Virginia from 1958 to 1960. Beams had been working on centrifuge technology since the early 1930s, which he developed up to around 1.5 million revolutions per second (ultracentrifuge). He developed a magnetic bearing for the rotors (from around 1934) of the ultracentrifuge, with early patents from 1941. In addition, the rotors of the ultracentrifuges were in a high vacuum.

Beams' ultracentrifuge technology had been used in biology since the 1930s, and Beams himself also turned to applications of the apparatus he had developed in biology and biophysics, in particular from the 1960s, partly in collaboration with the biochemistry professor at the University of Virginia Donald Kupke. He was already investigating applications in materials science in the 1930s and found z. B. that thin metallic films were much more stable than e.g. B. metal balls. He also wrote the article Centrifuge in 1974 in the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

He also developed one of the first linear accelerators for electrons with colleagues at the University of Virginia in 1933/34, following the design principle of Rolf Wideröe ( William Webster Hansen at Stanford did this independently from around 1930 ). and an apparatus for more precise measurement of the gravitational constant, a further development of the classic Cavendish experiment . With this, he improved the accuracy of previous measurements by an order of magnitude (with further potential) before his death. Before his death, he also designed an experiment to test Paul Dirac's hypothesis of the continuous generation of matter and to test a possible variability of the gravitational constant (Dirac's theory).

Also in the 1970s he developed a highly accurate device for measuring the density and viscosity of liquids based on the use of a magnetic suspension of a small cylinder in a liquid.

Memberships and honors

In 1967 he received the National Medal of Science , in 1958 the Lewis Prize of the American Philosophical Society, in 1956 the John Scott Medal of the American Physical Society and in 1942 the Howard N. Potts Medal . He also received the first Thomas Jefferson Award from the University of Virginia. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1943), the Virginia Academy of Sciences (President 1947), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1949), the American Philosophical Society (Vice President 1960 to 1963), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Vice President 1943). He has received multiple honorary doctorates (College of William and Mary, University of North Carolina, Washington and Lee University, Florida Institute of Technology, Yale). He was long on the Scientific Council of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies (1948 to 1954 and 1960 to 1970), from 1951 to 1955 on the Executive Board of the National Research Council, from 1954 to 1960 on the Council of the Atomic Energy Commission and from 1942 to 1960 on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Aberdeen Proving Ground (US Army ballistics laboratory). In 1971 he became a lifetime fellow of the Franklin Institute.

1958 to 1959 he was president of the American Physical Society. The 1973 Jesse W. Beams Award of the American Physical Society is named in his honor. It is awarded for physical research in the southeastern United States.


  • with EO Lawrence On the nature of light , Proc. Nat. Acad., Vol. 13, 1927, p. 207
  • Ultrahigh-speed rotation , Scientific American, Volume 204, 1961, p. 135
  • with F. Haynes The Separation of Isotopes by Centrifuging , Physical Review, Volume 50, 1936, pp. 491-492
  • Production and Use of High Centrifugal Fields , Science, Volume 120, 1954, pp. 619-625
  • High speed rotation , Physics Today, 1959, issue 7
  • Early History of the Gas Centrifuge work in the USA , Charlottesville, University of Virginia 1975 (in collaboration with Union Carbide Corp. Nuclear Division in Oak Ridge)
  • Finding a better value for G , Physics Today, 1971, issue 5

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Based on reports that the USA received on centrifuge work in the Soviet Union, a small group under AR Kuhlthau at the University of Virginia was funded for further development work from the late 1940s. Kuhlthau also brought Zippe to Virginia at the end of the 1950s and because of his stay, other projects were initiated, for example at the Oak Ridge Laboratory in the USA. An initial success was the replacement of a planned expansion of a gas diffusion plant for uranium enrichment in Portsmouth (Ohio) in 1977 with a centrifuge plant, mainly for reasons of energy saving.
  2. Based on the state of the art in the mid-1920s of a few thousand revolutions per second, achieved by the later Nobel Prize winner Theodor Svedberg Beams, in particular, followed the work of the Belgians E. Henriot and E. Huguenard.
  3. ^ Beams, Walker, Morton Mechanical properties of thin films of silver , Physical Review, Volume 87, 1952, p. 524
  4. And the one about gravitation with Kenneth Nordtvedt and James Faller
  5. Aiginger, Poljanc, Particle Accelerator Script, TU Vienna 2005, pdf
  6. Beams, Luther u. a. Initial results from a new measurement of the Newtonian Gravitational Constant , Atomic Masses and Fundamental Constants, Volume 5, 1976, p. 629
  7. Necessary for his theory of the temporal variability of G
  8. Beams, Rogers C. Ritter, GT Gillies, RT Rood Dynamic measurement of matter creation ; Nature, Vol. 271, 1978, pp. 228-229
  9. MG Hodgins, Beams Magnetic Densimeter-Viscosimeter , Review of Scientific Instruments, Volume 42, 1971, pp. 1455-1457
  10. Official website for the Beams price