Person: Peierls, Rudolf Ernst
Rudolf Peierls was one of the most influential of the German mathematical physicists who migrated and settled in Britain during the Nazi era.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- Heinrich Peierls was director of the Berlin-Oberschöneweide factory of Allgemeine Elektrizitätsgesellschaft when Rudolf was born, and the following year he became a member of the board.
- Peierls was then forced to go down the route he had been trying to avoid and take courses in mathematics and theoretical physics.
- After a year at Berlin, Peierls moved to the Department of Theoretical Physics in Munich University in 1926.
- It was Sommerfeld who introduced Peierls to quantum mechanics during these two years and this proved highly significant for Peierls' career.
- In the spring of 1929 Heisenberg also went off on a world tour so Peierls moved university again, this time going to the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zürich to work with Wolfgang Pauli.
- At Zürich, Peierls worked with Lev Landau who was visiting Zürich.
- In the summer of 1930 Peierls went to a conference in Odessa where he met not only with Lev Landau, but also many of his colleagues.
- Peierls was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship and he spent the first half of the year 1932-33 in Rome with Enrico Fermi, and the second half in England where he worked at Cambridge with Paul Dirac and Ralph Fowler.
- However, undertaking war work was still difficult and this would prove particularly so when, together with Otto Frisch (an Austrian), he made it known to the British government through the 3-page Frisch-Peierls memorandum that he had the theoretical knowledge to make an atomic bomb from uranium-235 a possibility.
- The government set up the MAUD committee to examine the Frisch-Peierls memorandum and at first, because of Peierls and Frisch's German and Austrian backgrounds, they were prevented from taking part.
- Soon, however, the realisation that it was impossible to prevent the two scientists who had proposed the idea from knowing about it came home to the committee and Peierls and Frisch were invited as members of a technical subcommittee.
- Early in 1941 Peierls invited Klaus Fuchs to join him, Otto Frisch and James Chadwick, in the work on the theoretical side of the British project to develop an atomic bomb.
- In August 1943 the Quebec Conference set up a formal collaboration between Britain and the United States on nuclear weapons research and, after a fact finding mission by Peierls in Washington, all the key British researchers joined the Manhattan Project.
- When Fuchs was exposed as a Russian spy in 1950 it caused considerable embarrassment to Peierls who had to endure press speculation that he was also a spy.
- As a result Peierls resigned from his consultancy role at Harwell.
- Peierls received many honours such as election to the Royal Society in 1945, and receiving their Royal Medal in 1959.
- In 1997, two years after his death, Selected scientific papers of Sir Rudolf Peierls was published.
- This valuable book features a selection of 72 of the much larger number of scientific papers and lectures that Peierls contributed to the scientific literature, and includes translations into English of his early work as well as personal comments by the author which modestly evaluate the importance of most of the papers.
- Peierls was a highly competent, though not a notably creative mathematician; his principal interest was clearly in making calculations which would lead to a deep understanding of physical phenomena, and he was adept at finding approximations which gave trustworthy numerical results.
- It is based on (obviously leisurely) lectures that Sir Rudolf gave in 1977/78, both in the U.S. and in France.
Born 5 June 1907, Berlin, Germany. Died 19 September 1995, Oakenholt, near Oxford, England.
View full biography at MacTutor
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Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive