Alfred O. C. Nier

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Alfred O. C. Nier
Nier in 1940 holding a glass mass spectrometer chamber.
Alfred Otto Carl Nier

(1911-05-28)May 28, 1911
DiedMay 16, 1994(1994-05-16) (aged 82)
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Minnesota

Alfred Otto Carl Nier (May 28, 1911 – May 16, 1994) was an American physicist who pioneered the development of mass spectrometry.[1] He was the first to use mass spectrometry to isolate uranium-235 which was used to demonstrate that 235U could undergo fission and developed the sector mass spectrometer configuration now known as Nier-Johnson geometry.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

He was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 28, 1911. Nier showed an early ability in mathematics and science, coupled with an aptitude for craft and mechanical work. Nier's German immigrant parents had little education or financial resources but their determination for his development meant that he was able to attend the nearby University of Minnesota. Though he graduated in electrical engineering in 1931, the lack of engineering jobs during the Great Depression encouraged him to take up graduate study in physics.



In 1936, his spectroscopic skills won him a fellowship and substantial grant at Harvard University.[3] His work there led to the 1938 publication of measurements of the relative abundance of the isotopes of uranium, measurements that were used by Fritz Houtermans and Arthur Holmes in the 1940s to estimate the age of the Earth.[4]

The Manhattan Project[edit]

Nier returned to Minnesota in 1938 to be near his ageing parents. In 1940, on the request of Enrico Fermi, he and a few students, including Edward Ney, prepared a pure sample of uranium-235 using an early mass spectrograph designed by Nier,[5][6] for John R. Dunning's team at Columbia University. On the day of its receipt (it was sent by US Postal Mail), Dunning's team was able to demonstrate that uranium-235 was the isotope responsible for nuclear fission, rather than the more abundant uranium-238. Confirmation of this suspected fact was a critical step in the development of the atomic bomb.[3]

From 1943 to 1945, Nier worked with Kellex Corporation in Manhattan, New York City on the design and development of efficient and effective mass spectrographs for use in the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb in World War II.[3] During the war most of the spectrographs used for monitoring uranium separations were designed by Nier.[7]

Later work[edit]

After the war, he returned to Minnesota where he worked on geochronology, the upper atmosphere, space science and noble gases.[3] Nier designed the miniature mass spectrometers used by the Viking Landers to sample the atmosphere of Mars.[7]


Active to the end of his life, he died on May 16, 1994, two weeks after being paralysed in a motor accident.[1][3]


Nier was a member, National Academy of Sciences;[8] and a foreign scientific member of the Max Planck Society.[8]

The Martian crater Nier [9] and the mineral nierite (tiny silicon nitride inclusions in meteorites)[10] were named after him. The Nier Prize is awarded annually by the Meteoritical Society and recognizes outstanding research in meteoritics and closely allied fields by young scientists.[11]


  1. ^ a b Hilchey, Tim (May 19, 1994). "Alfred Nier, 82. Physicist Helped Foster A-Bomb". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-06. Alfred O. C. Nier, a physicist at the University of Minnesota whose early work on lead and uranium isotopes helped determine the age of the earth and usher in the atomic age, died on Monday in Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. He was 82. He died from injuries suffered in an automobile accident on May 2 near his home in Roseville, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul, said Dr. Edward Ney, an emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the university.
  2. ^ Johnson, W.; Nier, A. (1957). "Atomic Masses in the Region Xenon to Europium". Physical Review. 105 (3): 1014–1023. Bibcode:1957PhRv..105.1014J. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.105.1014. ISSN 0031-899X.
  3. ^ a b c d e Reynolds (1998).
  4. ^ Lewis, Cheryl (2000). The Dating Game. Cambridge University Press. pp. 202–208. ISBN 9780521893121.
  5. ^ "Nier Mass Spectrograph". National Museum of American History. 2010-01-01. Archived from the original on 2021-12-08. Retrieved 2021-12-08.
  6. ^ Sullivan, Neil J. (2016). The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-61234-815-5.
  7. ^ a b Arblaster (2004).
  8. ^ a b Mauersberger (1999).
  9. ^ "Mars Nomenclature: Crater, craters". Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature. USGS: Astrogeology Research Program. Retrieved 2007-08-16.
  10. ^ Lee, M. R.; Russell, S. S.; Arden, J. W.; Pillinger, C. T. (1995). "Nierite (Si3N4), a new mineral from ordinary and enstatite chondrites". Meteoritics. 30 (4): 387. Bibcode:1995Metic..30..387L. doi:10.1111/j.1945-5100.1995.tb01142.x.
  11. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-07-06. Retrieved 2014-12-21.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

Further reading[edit]

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