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Percy Williams Bridgman

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Percy Williams Bridgman
Bridgman in 1946
Born(1882-04-21)April 21, 1882
DiedAugust 20, 1961(1961-08-20) (aged 79)
Alma materHarvard University
Known forHigh-pressure physics
Operational definition
AwardsRumford Prize (1917)
Elliott Cresson Medal (1932)
Comstock Prize in Physics (1933)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1946)
Fellow of the Royal Society (1949)[1]
Bingham Medal (1951)
Scientific career
InstitutionsHarvard University
Doctoral advisorWallace Clement Sabine
Doctoral studentsFrancis Birch
Gerald Holton
John C. Slater
Edwin C. Kemble

Percy Williams Bridgman (April 21, 1882 – August 20, 1961) was an American physicist who received the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the physics of high pressures. He also wrote extensively on the scientific method and on other aspects of the philosophy of science.[2][3][4] The Bridgman effect, the Bridgman–Stockbarger technique, and the high-pressure mineral bridgmanite are named after him.


Early life[edit]

Bridgman was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and grew up in nearby Auburndale.[5]

Bridgman's parents were both born in New England. His father, Raymond Landon Bridgman, was "profoundly religious and idealistic" and worked as a newspaper reporter assigned to state politics. His mother, Mary Ann Maria Williams, was described as "more conventional, sprightly, and competitive".[5]

Bridgman attended both elementary and high school in Auburndale, where he excelled at competitions in the classroom, on the playground, and while playing chess. Described as both shy and proud, his home life consisted of family music, card games, and domestic and garden chores. The family was deeply religious; reading the Bible each morning and attending a Congregational Church.[5] However, Bridgman later became an atheist.[6]

Education and professional life[edit]

Bridgman entered Harvard University in 1900, and studied physics through to his PhD. From 1910 until his retirement, he taught at Harvard, becoming a full professor in 1919. In 1905, he began investigating the properties of matter under high pressure. A machinery malfunction led him to modify his pressure apparatus; the result was a new device enabling him to create pressures eventually exceeding 100,000 kgf/cm2 (10 GPa; 100,000 atmospheres). This was a huge improvement over previous machinery, which could achieve pressures of only 3,000 kgf/cm2 (0.3 GPa).[7] This new apparatus led to an abundance of new findings, including a study of the compressibility, electric and thermal conductivity, tensile strength and viscosity of more than 100 different compounds.[citation needed] Bridgman is also known for his studies of electrical conduction in metals and properties of crystals. He developed the Bridgman seal and is the eponym for Bridgman's thermodynamic equations.

Bridgman made many improvements to his high-pressure apparatus over the years, and unsuccessfully attempted the synthesis of diamond many times.[8]

His philosophy of science book The Logic of Modern Physics (1927) advocated operationalism and coined the term operational definition. In 1938 he participated in the International Committee composed to organise the International Congresses for the Unity of Science.[9] He was also one of the 11 signatories to the Russell–Einstein Manifesto.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, was an undergraduate student of Bridgman's. Of his teaching abilities, Oppenheimer said that, “I found Bridgman a wonderful teacher because he never really was quite reconciled to things being the way they were and he always thought them out.”[10]

Home life and death[edit]

Bridgman with wife and Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden in Stockholm in 1946

Bridgman married Olive Ware (1882-1972), of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1912. Ware's father, Edmund Asa Ware, was the founder and first president of Atlanta University. The couple had two children and were married for nearly 50 years, living most of that time in Cambridge. The family also had a summer home in Randolph, New Hampshire, where Bridgman was known as a skilled mountain climber.[5]

Bridgman was a "penetrating analytical thinker" with a "fertile mechanical imagination" and exceptional manual dexterity. He was a skilled plumber and carpenter, known to shun the assistance of professionals in these matters. He was also fond of music and played the piano, and took pride in his flower and vegetable gardens.[5]

Bridgman committed suicide by gunshot after suffering from metastatic cancer for some time. His suicide note was a mere two sentences; "It isn't decent for society to make a man do this thing himself. Probably this is the last day I will be able to do it myself."[11][12] Bridgman's words have been quoted by many in the assisted suicide debate.[13][14]

Honors and awards[edit]

Bridgman received Doctors, honoris causa from Stevens Institute (1934), Harvard (1939), Brooklyn Polytechnic (1941), Princeton (1950), Paris (1950), and Yale (1951). He received the Bingham Medal (1951) from the Society of Rheology, the Rumford Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1919), the Elliott Cresson Medal (1932) from the Franklin Institute, the Gold Medal from Bakhuys Roozeboom Fund (founder Hendrik Willem Bakhuis Roozeboom) (1933) from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences,[15] and the Comstock Prize (1933) of the National Academy of Sciences.[16]

Bridgman was a member of the American Physical Society and was its president in 1942. He was also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences. He was a Foreign Member of the Royal Society and Honorary Fellow of the Physical Society of London.[citation needed]

The Percy W. Bridgman House, in Massachusetts, is a U.S. National Historic Landmark designated in 1975.[17]

In 2014, the Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification of the International Mineralogical Association approved the name bridgmanite for perovskite-structured (Mg,Fe)SiO3,[18] the Earth's most abundant mineral,[19] in honor of his high-pressure research.


  • — (1922). Dimensional Analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press. OCLC 840631.
  • — (1925). A Condensed Collection of Thermodynamics Formulas. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. OCLC 594940689.
  • — (1927). The Logic of Modern Physics. New York: Macmillan. OCLC 17522325.[20] Online excerpt.
  • — (1934). The Thermodynamics of Electrical Phenomena in Metals. New York: Macmillan.
  • — (1936). The Nature of Physical Theory. Dover. OCLC 1298653.
  • — (1938). The Intelligent Individual and Society. New York: MacMillan. OCLC 1488461.
  • — (1941). The Nature of Thermodynamics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780844605128. OCLC 4614803.
  • — (1949). The Physics of High Pressure. London: G. Bell. OCLC 8122603.
  • — (1950). Reflections of a Physicist. New York: Philosophical Library. OCLC 583047.[21]
  • — (1952). Studies in large plastic flow and fracture: with special emphasis on the effects of hydrostatic pressure. Metallurgy and metallurgical engineering series. New York: McGraw-Hill. OCLC 7435297.
  • — (1959). The Way Things Are. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674948303. OCLC 40803473.
  • — (1961) [First published separately in 1925 and 1934]. Thermodynamics of Electrical Phenomena in Metals and a Condensed Collection of Thermodynamic Formulas. New Haven: Macmillan. OCLC 610252150.
  • — (1962). A Sophisticate's Primer of Relativity. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press. OCLC 530615.
  • — (1964). Collected experimental papers. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. OCLC 372237.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Newitt, D. M. (1962). "Percy Williams Bridgman 1882–1961". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 8: 26–40. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1962.0003.
  2. ^ "Percy W. Bridgman". Physics Today. 14 (10): 78. 1961. doi:10.1063/1.3057180.
  3. ^ Bridgman, P. (1914). "A Complete Collection of Thermodynamic Formulas". Physical Review. 3 (4): 273–281. Bibcode:1914PhRv....3..273B. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.3.273.
  4. ^ Bridgman, P. W. (1956). "Probability, Logic, and ESP". Science. 123 (3184): 15–17. Bibcode:1956Sci...123...15B. doi:10.1126/science.123.3184.15. PMID 13281470.
  5. ^ a b c d e Kemble, Edwin C.; Birch, Francis (1970). Percy Williams Bridgman – 1882—1961 (PDF). National Academy of Sciences. pp. 25, 26, 27.
  6. ^ Ray Monk (2013). Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center. Random House LLC. ISBN 9780385504133. In many ways they were opposites; Kemble, the theorist, was a devout Christian, while Bridgman, the experimentalist, was a strident atheist.
  7. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Physics 1946".
  8. ^ Hazen, Robert (1999), The Diamond Makers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-65474-2
  9. ^ Neurath, Otto (1938). "Unified Science as Encyclopedic Integration". International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. 1 (1): 1–27.
  10. ^ Bird, Kai (2006). American Prometheus: the triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1st Vintage books ed.). New York: Vintage. ISBN 978-0-307-42473-0. OCLC 695567255.
  11. ^ Holton, Gerald (February 1, 1962). "Percy Williams Bridgman". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 18 (2): 22–23. Bibcode:1962BuAtS..18b..22H. doi:10.1080/00963402.1962.11454315. Retrieved October 20, 2021.
  12. ^ Nuland, Sherwin. How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter. Vintage Press, 1995. ISBN 0-679-74244-1.
  13. ^ Ayn Rand Institute discussion on assisted suicide. Aynrand.org; retrieved January 28, 2012.
  14. ^ Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization. Assistedsuicide.org (June 13, 2003); retrieved 2012-01-28.
  15. ^ "Bakhuys Roozeboom Fund laureates". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on August 7, 2011. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
  16. ^ "Comstock Prize in Physics". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on December 29, 2010. Retrieved February 13, 2011.
  17. ^ James Sheire (February 1975), National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Percy Bridgman House/Bridgman House-Buckingham School (PDF), National Park Service, retrieved June 22, 2009 and Accompanying one photo, exterior, from 1975 (519 KB)
  18. ^ Page on bridgmanite, mindat.org; retrieved June 3, 2014.
  19. ^ Murakami, M.; Sinogeikiin S.V.; Hellwig H.; Bass J.D.; Li J. (2007). "Sound velocity of MgSiO3 perovskite to Mbar pressure". Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 256 (1–2). Elsevier: 47–54. Bibcode:2007E&PSL.256...47M. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2007.01.011.
  20. ^ Kovarik, A. F. (1929). "Review: The Logic of Modern Physics by P. W. Bridgman" (PDF). Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 35 (3): 412–413. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1929-04767-0.
  21. ^ Riepe, D. (1950). "Book Review: Reflections of a Physicist, by P. W. Bridgman". Popular Astronomy. 58: 367–368. Bibcode:1950PA.....58..367R.

Further reading[edit]

  • Walter, Maila L., 1991. Science and Cultural Crisis: An Intellectual Biography of Percy Williams Bridgman (1882–1961). Stanford Univ. Press.
  • McMillan, Paul F (2005), "Pressing on: the legacy of Percy W. Bridgman.", Nature Materials, vol. 4, no. 10 (published October 2005), pp. 715–718, Bibcode:2005NatMa...4..715M, doi:10.1038/nmat1488, PMID 16195758, S2CID 2785280

External links[edit]

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