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Victor Weisskopf

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Victor Weisskopf
Weisskopf in the 1940s
Born(1908-09-19)September 19, 1908
DiedApril 22, 2002(2002-04-22) (aged 93)
NationalityAustria, United States
Alma materUniversity of Göttingen
AwardsMax Planck Medal (1956)
Oersted Medal (1976)
National Medal of Science (1980)
Wolf Prize (1981)
Enrico Fermi Award (1988)
Public Welfare Medal (1991)
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Leipzig
University of Berlin
ETH Zurich
Niels Bohr Institute
University of Rochester
Manhattan Project
ThesisZur Theorie der Resonanzfluoreszenz (1931)
Doctoral advisorMax Born
Doctoral studentsJ. Bruce French
David H. Frisch
Kerson Huang
J. David Jackson
Arthur Kerman
Murray Gell-Mann
Kurt Gottfried
Raymond Stora
Lawrence Biedenharn

Victor Frederick "Viki" Weisskopf (also spelled Viktor; September 19, 1908 – April 22, 2002) was an Austrian-born American theoretical physicist. He did postdoctoral work with Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli, and Niels Bohr.[1] During World War II he was Deputy Division Leader of the Theoretical Division of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos,[2] and he later campaigned against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.[3]



Weisskopf was born in Vienna to Jewish parents and earned his doctorate in physics at the University of Göttingen in Germany in 1931. His brilliance in physics led to work with the great physicists exploring the atom, especially Niels Bohr, who mentored Weisskopf at his institute in Copenhagen. By the late 1930s, he realized that, as a Jew, he needed to get out of Europe. Bohr helped him find a position in the United States.[4]

In the 1930s and 1940s, "Viki", as everyone called him, made major contributions to the development of quantum theory, especially in the area of quantum electrodynamics.[5] One of his few regrets was that his insecurity about his mathematical abilities may have cost him a Nobel Prize when he did not publish results (which turned out to be correct) about what became known as the Lamb shift.[6] Nevertheless, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics numerous times later in his career.[7]

Weisskopf's Los Alamos badge

From 1937 to 1943 he was a Professor of Physics at the University of Rochester.[8] There, he met graduate student Esther Conwell, and together they formulated the Conwell–Weisskopf theory, which describes the movement of electrons through semiconductors and led to a better understanding of integrated circuits, knowledge that became essential for modern computing.[9]

After World War II, Weisskopf joined the physics faculty at MIT, ultimately becoming head of the department. In 1956, he became one of the founding members of the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC), developing the curriculum for a revolutionary method of teaching physics at the high school level. As the Red Scare faded, in 1959 Weisskopf joined physicists George Gamow and Hans Bethe in supporting the return of exiled physicist Frank Oppenheimer to science teaching;[10]: 130  a decade later, Oppenheimer would found the innovative Exploratorium museum of science, technology, and arts in San Francisco.

At MIT, he encouraged students to ask questions, and even in undergraduate physics courses, taught his students to think like physicists, not just to memorize the equations of physics. He was a memorable teacher, and delighted in posing "Fermi questions" and then helping students to work out approximate answers. For example, he would ask the maximum possible height of a mountain on the Earth, calculated from known basic physical constants. It took him about half an hour to work through an explanation of his computations, with the result being of the same order of magnitude as the known height of Mount Everest. For an encore, he would quickly work out the analogous answers for Mars and Jupiter (when the Mars Orbiter survey results later became available, they were consistent with his computed elevation). For his finale, he would compute the energy released by rolling a bowling ball down the highest theoretical mountain on Jupiter.

Weisskopf was a co-founder and board member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He served as director-general of CERN from 1961 to 1966.[11][12][13][14][15] In 1966 a Festschrift was published in his honor.[16]

Weisskopf was awarded the Max Planck Medal in 1956 and the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca in 1972, the National Medal of Science (1980), the Wolf Prize (1981) and the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences (1991).[17]

Weisskopf was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.[18][19] He was president of the American Physical Society (1960–61)[20] and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1976–1979).[21]

He was appointed by Pope Paul VI to the 70-member Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1975, and in 1981 he led a team of four scientists sent by Pope John Paul II to talk to President Ronald Reagan about the need to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons.

In a joint statement "Preserving and Cherishing the Earth" with other noted scientists including Carl Sagan, it concluded that: "The historical record makes clear that religious teaching, example, and leadership are powerfully able to influence personal conduct and commitment ... Thus, there is a vital role for religion and science."[22]

Personal life


His first wife, Ellen Tvede, died in 1989. Weisskopf died on April 22, 2002, and was survived by his second wife Duscha, daughter of accidental Night of the Long Knives victim Willi Schmid.[23]

Decorations and awards


There is a street, Route Weisskopf, named after Weisskopf at CERN, Geneva, Switzerland.



Human existence is based upon two pillars: Compassion and knowledge. Compassion without knowledge is ineffective; knowledge without compassion is inhuman.[27]

Citing initial teacher–student interactions, Noam Chomsky attributes to Victor the educational maxim,

It doesn't matter what we cover. It matters what we discover.[28]


  • Weisskopf, Victor; Blatt, J. M. (1952). Theoretical Nuclear Physics. New York: John Wiley.
  • Weisskopf, Victor (1963). Knowledge and Wonder: The Natural World as Man Knows It. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday & Co. (Science Study Series S31).
  • Weisskopf, Victor (1970). Modern Physics from an Elementary Point of View. Geneva: CERN.
  • Weisskopf, Victor (1972). Physics in the Twentieth Century: Selected Essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Weisskopf, Victor; Kurt Gottfried (1984). Concepts of Particle Physics, vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Weisskopf, Victor; Kurt Gottfried (1986). Concepts of Particle Physics, vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Weisskopf, Victor (1989). The Privilege of Being a Physicist. Essays. New York: W. H. Freeman.
  • Weisskopf, Victor (1991). The Joy of Insight: Passions of a Physicist. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-03678-3.


  1. ^ "Weisskopf dies at 93; was protégée of physicist Niels Bohr". MIT News. April 24, 2002. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  2. ^ "Victor Weisskopf, Deputy Division Leader - Los Alamos Theoretical Division". Atomic Heritage Foundation. 2022. Retrieved January 29, 2024.
  3. ^ "War and Peace in the Nuclear Age; Weapon of Choice, The; Interview with Victor Weisskopf, 1986". openvault.wgbh.org. Retrieved June 5, 2017.
  4. ^ Office of the Home Secretary; National Academy of Sciences (January 1, 2004). Biographical Memoirs. Vol. 84. National Academies Press. p. 375. ISBN 978-0-309-08957-9.
  5. ^ Gottfried, Kurt; Jackson, J. David (February 2003). "Mozart and Quantum Mechanics: An Appreciation of Victor Weisskopf" (PDF). Physics Today. 56 (2): 43–47. Bibcode:2003PhT....56b..43G. doi:10.1063/1.1564348.
  6. ^ Gottfried, Kurt; Jackson, J. David. "Victor Frederick Weisskopf, 1908–2002, A Biographical Memoir" (PDF). p. 16. I might even have shared the Nobel Prize with Lamb
  7. ^ "Victor Frederick Weisskopf". NobelPrize.org. April 1, 2020. Retrieved April 5, 2022.
  8. ^ "Victor F. Weisskopf » MIT Physics". MIT Physics. Retrieved April 5, 2022.
  9. ^ Glorfeld, Jeff (July 14, 2019). "Esther Conwell and the computer age". cosmosmagazine.com. Retrieved April 5, 2022.
  10. ^ Cole, K. C. (2009). Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-100822-3.
  11. ^ "Who's who in Cern: Victor F. Weisskopf". CERN Courier. 1 (15): 2. Winter 1960.
  12. ^ Hine, Mervyn (January 2003). "Working with Viki at CERN". CERN Courier.
  13. ^ Kummer, Wolfgang (June 2002). "Victor Weisskopf: looking back on a distinguished career". CERN Courier. 42 (5): 28–32.
  14. ^ "Farewell to Professor Weisskopf". CERN Courier. 6 (1): 3–5. January 1966.
  15. ^ "People and things". CERN Courier. 23 (10): 432. December 1983.
  16. ^ Barut, A. O. (1966). "Festschrift for Weisskopf: Preludes in Theoretical Physics, in Honor of V. F. Weisskopf edited by A. De-Shalit, H. Feshbach, and L. Van Hove". Science. 154 (3749): 637–638. doi:10.1126/science.154.3749.637.b. S2CID 239491295. p. 638
  17. ^ "Public Welfare Medal Recipients". National Academy of Sciences. 2015. Archived from the original on August 9, 2013. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  18. ^ "Victor F. Weisskopf". www.nasonline.org. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  19. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  20. ^ "Past and Present Presidents". American Physical Society. 2015. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  21. ^ "Academy Presidents". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 2015. Archived from the original on February 21, 2015. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  22. ^ Carl Sagan; Hans A. Bethe; S. Chandrasekhar; et al. (January 1990). "Preserving and Cherishing the Earth". Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  23. ^ Chang, Kenneth (April 25, 2002). "Victor Weisskopf, a Manhattan Project Physicist, Dies at 93". The New York Times. Retrieved June 6, 2017.
  24. ^ "George Gamow Award Goes to Victor F. Weisskopf". Physics Today. 1971. doi:10.1063/1.3022709.
  25. ^ "Weisskopf wins Oppenheimer Prize". Physics Today. 36 (7): 77. July 1983. doi:10.1063/1.2915767.
  26. ^ "Reply to a parliamentary question" (PDF). Österreichisches Parlament (in German). Wien. April 23, 2012. p. 1372. Retrieved January 5, 2013.
  27. ^ V. Stefan (Editor). PHYSICS and SOCIETY. Essays in Honor of Victor Frederick Weisskopf by the International Community of Physicists., Forward p. v. ISBN 1-56396-386-8
  28. ^ Noam Chomsky (1991). "Language, Politics, and Composition". I often quote a famous statement from one of MIT’s great physicists, Victor Weisskopf, but it's a standard comment. He was often asked by students, “What are we going to cover this semester?” His standard answer was supposed to have been, “It doesn't matter what we cover; it matters what we discover.” That's basically it: that’s good teaching. It doesn’t matter what you cover; it matters how much you develop the capacity to discover. You do that and you’re in good shape.


  • Medawar, Jean; Pyke, David (2012). Hitler's Gift: The True Story of the Scientists Expelled by the Nazi Regime (Paperback). New York: Arcade Publishing. ISBN 978-1-61145-709-4.
  • V. Stefan, ed. (1998). Physics and Society: Essays in Honor of Victor Frederick Weisskopf by the International Community of Physicists. AIP Press. ISBN 1-56396-386-8.
Preceded by
John Adams (Acting Director-General)
CERN Director General
Succeeded by