Willis E. Lamb, Jr., the Hydrogen Atom, and the Lamb Shift

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Willis E. Lamb, Jr., was awarded the 2000 National Medal of Science for "his towering contributions to classical and quantum theories of laser radiation and quantum optics, and to the proper interpretation of non-relativistic quantum mechanics. ... The National Medal of Science, established by Congress in 1959 and administered for the President by the National Science Foundation, is the nation's highest scientific honor."

Willis E. Lamb, Jr.
Courtesy W.E. Lamb, Jr.

In 1955, Lamb won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discoveries concerning "the fine structure of the hydrogen atom and discovery of a phenomenon called the Lamb shift, which revolutionized the quantum theory of matter." He shared the prize with Polykarp Kusch who won for ‘his precision determination of the magnetic moment of the electron'.

‘[Lamb] joined the Columbia University physics faculty in 1938. From 1943 to 1951, he worked with the Columbia Radiation Laboratory. There his defense-related research focused on the problem of how to make shorter, higher frequency microwave sources for radar - and it led to his Nobel Prize-winning work. ...

In April 1947 - "I remember it was on a Saturday," Lamb said -- his experiment succeeded. It revealed the minute but significant shift of energy in the hydrogen atom in different states.

Two months later, Lamb was invited to present his work at a historically famous conference on Shelter Island, New York, a conference subsidized by the National Academy of Sciences to explore directions for research in the post-war era. ...

Lamb's discovery of the quantum effect that became known as the "Lamb shift" led physicists to rethink the basic concepts behind the application of quantum theory to electromagnetism. His work became one of the foundations of quantum electrodynamics, a key aspect of modern elementary particle physics.

Lamb wrote a series of remarkable papers published in the Physical Review from 1947 - 1953 that were regarded as immediate classics by all working in atomic physics, said UA [University of Arizona] physics Professor William H. Wing. ... Wing noted that in papers published as early as 1939, at age 26, Lamb predicted what more than 20 years later became known as the Mossbauer Effect (aka the Lamb-Dicke-Mossbauer Effect). ...

Lamb continued working in the general area of atomic spectroscopy and theoretical laser physics as a member of the Stanford University faculty (1951-56) and as professor and Fellow of New College at the University of Oxford, England (1956-62). At Yale University, Lamb was Henry Ford II Professor of Physics (1962-72) and J. Willard Gibbs Professor of Physics (1972-74.) ... Lamb, Regents' Professor of physics and optical sciences, joined the University of Arizona in 1974. ...

Lamb's honors and awards include the 1992 Einstein Medal given by the Society for Optical and Quantum Electronics, the Guthrie Award from the Physical Society of London, election to the National Academy of Sciences, a 1999 Honorary Member of the Optical Society of America, a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. ... He was named Regents' Professor at UA in 1990.'


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