Eugene Wigner Biography

Eugene Paul 'E. P.' Wigner was a Hungarian American theoretical physicist and mathematician. This biography provides detailed information about his childhood, life, research, achievements and timeline.

Eugene Wigner
Quick Facts

Birthday: November 17, 1902

Nationality: American

Famous: Physicists Mathematicians

Died At Age: 92

Sun Sign: Scorpio

Also Known As: E. P. Wigner, Eugene Paul Wigner, Eugene P. Wigner, Eugene Paul

Born in: Budapest, Hungary

Famous as: Physicist & Mathematician

Family:

Spouse/Ex-: 2010), Amelia Frank (1936–1937; her death), Eileen Clare-Patton Hamilton (1 child), Mary Annette Wheeler (1941–1977; her death; 2 children)

siblings: Margit Wigner

Died on: January 1, 1995

place of death: Princeton, New Jersey, United States

City: Budapest, Hungary

More Facts

education: Technical University of Berlin, Fasori Gimnázium

awards: Medal for Merit (1946) Franklin Medal (1950) Enrico Fermi Award (1958) Atoms for Peace Award (1959) Max Planck Medal (1961) Nobel Prize in Physics (1963) National Medal of Science (1969) Albert Einstein Award (1972) Wigner Medal (1978)

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Eugene Paul "E. P." Wigner was a Hungarian American theoretical physicist and mathematician and a joint winner of the Nobel Prize for his contribution to nuclear physics. From the beginning of his career, Wigner had made many significant cross-disciplinary discoveries. He established the importance of symmetry principles in quantum mechanics and was one of the first scientists to apply quantum mechanics to the theory of solids and chemical kinetics. He also led the endeavour to design the first high-powered reactors to be used in World War II. He was responsible for the full development of the R-matrix theory for nuclear reactions. More than forty doctoral students studied theoretical physics under his supervision at the Princeton University. As a statesman, he lobbied for civil defense. Later in life, he became inclined towards the philosophy of science. Wigner held memberships in different associations like the American Philosophical Society, the American Mathematical Society, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and Letters, and the Austrian Academy of Sciences. He was also a corresponding member of the Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Gottingen, and foreign member of the Royal Society of Great Britain. In his final years, he remained active in fostering cultural and scientific ties between Hungarians and the world.

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Eugene Wigner
Childhood & Early Life
  • Wigner was born on 17 November 1902 in an upper-middle-class family in Budapest, Hungary. His father, Antal Wigner, was manager at a leather tanning factory and his mother, Erzsébet was a devoted housewife. He had two other siblings.
  • He received education at home and was enrolled in school in the third grade when he was nine.
  • At the age of 11, he was mistakenly diagnosed with tuberculosis and was sent to live for six weeks in a sanatorium in Austria.
  • From 1915 through 1919, he studied at the secondary grammar school called Fasori Evangélikus Gimnázium.
  • Eugene’s peaceful childhood in Budapest was interrupted by World War I, and his family was forced to flee to Austria when Hungary was under communist rule for most of 1919.
  • In 1920, he enrolled at Műegyetem or the Budapest University of Technical Sciences but the next year got enrolled at Technische Hochschule in Berlin (where he studied chemical engineering).
  • In 1925 he obtained the degree of Dr. Ing. from the Technische Hochschule in Berlin under the supervision of Michael Polanyi.
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Career
  • In 1926 he accepted an offer from Karl Weissenberg at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin to work on x-ray crystallography. After assisting Weissenberg for six months, he worked for Richard Becker for two semesters.
  • In 1927 Wigner joined the mathematician David Hilbert as an assistant at the University of Göttingen. This was an important time for him and he produced the paper, ‘On the conservation laws of quantum mechanics’ which introduced the new concept of parity.
  • In 1930 Princeton University engaged Wigner for a one-year lectureship.
  • In 1931 he published ‘Group Theory and Its Application to the Quantum Mechanics of Atomic Spectra’.
  • From 1930 to 1933 Wigner spent half of the year at Princeton, half at Berlin lecturing at the Technische Hochschule.
  • After the Nazis rose to power, his term at Berlin ended and from 1936 to 1938, he served as a lecturer at Princeton.
  • He was appointed to Thomas D Jones Chair of Mathematical Physics at Princeton in 1938.
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  • From 1942 to 1945, he worked on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago. He led a team that designed nuclear reactors that would convert uranium into plutonium.
  • In 1946, he became the Co-director of Research and Development at the Clinton Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
  • After the end of World War II, he served on several government bodies, such as the National Bureau of Standards (1947–1951), the mathematics panel of the National Research Council (1951– 1954), and the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission (1952–1957; 1959–1964).
  • During his last years, Wigner's thoughts turned philosophical and in 1960, he published an article on the philosophy of mathematics and physics, ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences’.
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Major Works
  • His most important work was his formulation of the law of the conservation of parity, an integral part of quantum mechanics. It states that it is not possible to differentiate left from right in fundamental physical interactions.
  • While working on the Manhattan Project, he discovered the swelling of the graphite moderator by neuron radiation; a phenomenon now termed as ‘Wigner effect’.
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Awards & Achievements
  • In 1963, Eugene Wigner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics along with J. Hans D. Jensen of West Germany and Maria Goeppert Mayer of the United States.
  • His other notable awards include the Franklin Medal (1950) presented by the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia; the National Medal of Science (1969) presented by the President of the US; the Albert Einstein Award (1972) administered by the Institute for Advanced Study and the Wigner Medal (1978) by The Group Theory and Fundamental Physics Foundation.
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Personal Life & Legacy
  • Wigner met Amelia Frank, a physics student at the University of Wisconsin. They got married in 1936 but she died of cancer within a year.
  • In 1941, he married Mary Annete Wheeler and the couple had two children, David and Martha.
  • After the death of his second wife in 1977, Wigner married Eileen Clare-Patton (Pat) Hamilton, the widow of physicist Donald Ross Hamilton, in 1979. They had a daughter, Erika.
  • In 1992, at the age of 90, Wigner published his autobiography, ‘The Recollections of Eugene P. Wigner’.
  • He died of pneumonia at the University Medical Center in Princeton, New Jersey on 1 January 1995.
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Article Title
- Eugene Wigner Biography
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Last Updated
- May 31, 2019

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