Birthday: March 10, 1923
Died At Age: 91
Sun Sign: Pisces
Born Country: United States
Born in: Merriman, Nebraska
Famous as: Physicist
Spouse/Ex-: Daisy Harper Sharp, Elise Cunningham
father: Fred Fitch
mother: Frances Logsdon
Died on: February 5, 2015
place of death: Princeton, New Jersey, United States
U.S. State: Nebraska
discoveries/inventions: Discovery Of CP-violation
education: Columbia University, McGill University
awards: E. O. Lawrence Award (1968)
John Price Wetherill Medal (1976)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1980)
National Medal of Science (1993)
Val Logsdon Fitch was an American nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during the World War II. He was sent to observe the dummy atom bomb tests. He worked on the detonation team for the Trinity test. He also served on President Nixon’s Science Advisory Committee in the early ‘70s. Fitch along with co-researcher James Cronin was awarded the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics for a 1964 experiment using the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory. With their experiment they proved that the reactions of subatomic particles are not indifferent to time. Thus the phenomenon of CP violation was discovered. This demolished the belief that natural laws were governed by symmetry.
Childhood & Early Life
Fitch was born on 10th March 1923 on a cattle ranch in Cherry County, Nebraska. He had an older brother and a sister. His birth place was very close to the reserve area made for Sioux Indians.
His father, Fred Fitch had acquired a big ranch at the age of 20 while his mother, Frances Logsdon was a local school teacher. Fred could speak language of Sioux Indians and was made honorary chief of Sioux Indians.
When Val was very young, his father fell from a horse and got badly injured. Fred had to give up the physically strenuous activity associated with running a ranch and raising cattle. The family moved to Gordon, Nebraska, a town about 25 miles away, where Fred entered the insurance business.
Val completed high school in the public schools of Gordon in 1940. After high school he attended Chadron State College.
During the World War II, he entered the US Army as a soldier. This was a turning point in his life. After he had completed basic training, the Army sent him to Carnegie Institute of Technology for training under the Army Specialized Training Program. He was sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to work on the Manhattan Project.
At Los Alamos, he started working on implosion program and got an opportunity to work under the direction of Ernest Titterton, a member of the British Mission and an esteemed scientist. During his 3-year-stint at Los Alamos, he learned well the techniques of experimental physics.
He also had an opportunity to meet and work with many of the great physicist such as Fermi, Bohr, Chadwick, Rabi and Tolman. Val recorded some of the experiences from those days in a book ‘All in Our Time’.
After the World War II, Fitch was offered a graduate assistantship at Cornell University by Robert Bacher under whose leadership he was working. However, since he had not yet finished his undergraduate degree he had to decline this offer. Later he completed his Electrical Engineering studies from McGill University in 1948.
He completed his graduation from Columbia university and continued there to complete his Ph.D under the guidance of Jim Rainwater.
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While working in his office, Val came across a paper by John Wheeler devoted to µ-mesic atoms. This paper emphasized, in the case of the heavier nuclei, the extreme sensitivity of the Is level to the size of the nucleus. Even though the radiation from these atoms had never been observed, these atomic systems might be a good thesis topic.
This was the time when few technical developments had taken place simultaneously. The first one: The Columbia University had successfully developed Nevis cyclotron. The beams of (pi)-measons from the cyclotron contained an admixture of µ-measons which came from the decay of the (pi)'s and which could be separated by range. The second one: Scientist Hofstadter had developed excellent scintillation counter and energy spectrometer for gamma rays thallium activation of Sodium iodide. The Third one was the development of new phototubes just being produced by RCA which were suitable matches to sodium iodide crystals to convert the scintillations to electrical signals.
Val, using the above developments and his Los Alamos experience, designed and built a gamma-ray spectrometer including a multichannel pulse height analyzer.
The net result of all the effort for his thesis was the pioneering work on µ-mesic atoms. They found out that the nucleus was substantially smaller than had been deduced from other effects. While the µ-mesic atom measurements give the rms radius of the nucleus with extreme accuracy the electron scattering results have the advantage of yielding many moments to the charge distribution. He completed his Ph.D. in 1954, writing his thesis on ‘Studies of X-rays from µ-mesonic atoms.
After obtaining PhD, his interest shifted to the strange particles and K mesons. He took a position at Princeton University where he spent the next 20 years studying K-mesons. These efforts and discovery of CP-violation was recognized by the Nobel Foundation in 1980.
Val conducted much of his research at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he became acquainted with James Cronin. Cronin had built a new kind of detector, a spark chamber spectrometer, and he realized that it would be perfect for experiments with K mesons. Along with two colleagues, James Christenson and René Turlay, they set up their experiment on the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron at Brookhaven. They discovered an unexpected result. The importance of this result was not immediately appreciated but as evidence of the Big Bang Theory accumulated, Andrei Sakharov realized in 1967 that it explained why the universe is largely made of matter and not antimatter. Put simply, they had found "the answer to the physicist’s 'Why do we exist? For this discovery, Fitch and Cronin received the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Awards & Achievements
Even before he won the Nobel Prize in 1980, he was honored with many awards for his contribution to physics.
In 1967, he along with Jim Cronin received ‘The Research Corporation Award’ for their work on CP violation
He received the ‘E. O. Lawrence award’ in 1968.
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He served on a number of governmental science and science policy committees, including the President's Science Advisory Committee from 1970 to 1973.
He was honored with ‘The John Price Witherill medal’ of the Franklin Institute in 1976.
He held the ‘Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professorship of Physics’ at Princeton University’. Since 1976, he served as chairman of the ‘Physics Department’ in the University.
He was a fellow of the ‘American Physical Society’ and ‘The American Association for the Advancement of Science’. During 1988-89, he was the president of the society.
He was also a member of ‘The American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ and ‘The National Academy of Sciences’.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1949, Val Fitch married Elise Cunningham, a secretary who worked in the laboratory at Columbia. They had two sons. Elise died in 1972.
He remarried Daisy Harper Sharp in 1976. He had two stepdaughters and a stepson from Daisy’s earlier marriage.
He died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, at the age of 91 on February 5, 2015.
Logsdon – from his name Val Logsdon Fitch, was his mother’s maiden name.
Before the WWII, he tried to volunteer for air force. However, he was turned down as he was color blind.