Eugene Wigner and Fundamental Symmetry Principles

Patents · Resources with Additional Information · Wigner Honored

"[Eugene P.] Wigner's great contribution to science, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, was his insight into the fundamental mathematics and physics of quantum mechanics. He applied and extended the mathematical theory of groups to the quantum world of the atom; specifically, he used group theory to organize the quantum energy levels of electrons in atoms in a way that is now standard. With that mathematical approach to the atom, Wigner became one of the first to apprehend the deep implications of symmetry, which has since emerged as one, if not the, key principle of 20th-century theoretical physics. …

Eugene P. Wigner
Credit: Argonne National
Laboratory, Courtesy AIP Emilio
Segrè Visual Archives

Wigner also played a prominent role in the effort to develop the atomic bomb and, later, to harness that same force to produce energy. It was Wigner, along with fellow Hungarian expatriate Leo Szilard, who persuaded Albert Einstein in 1939 to write the now-famous letter to President Roosevelt about the potential to produce vast amounts of energy from the element uranium.

In 1942 Wigner went on leave from Princeton to join the team at the University of Chicago working on the secret project to design the reactors to produce the first plutonium for nuclear weapons. He was one of the handful of scientists who witnessed the birth of the atomic age on Dec. 2 of that year when, in a squash court underneath the west stand of Staff Field, Enrico Fermi lit the first atomic fire, a crucial step toward the completion of the atomic bomb in 1945.

In the decades following the war, Wigner was a leader in the development of nuclear energy and a vigorous advocate of stepped-up civil defense to protect the American population from a nuclear attack. …

In addition to his work on the Princeton faculty and the atomic bomb project, Wigner served from 1964 to 1965 as the director of Civil Defense Research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He retired from active status on the Princeton faculty in 1971."

- Edited excerpts from Eugene P. Wigner


Resources with Additional Information

Additional information about Eugene Paul Wigner and his research is available in full-text and on the Web.


Wigner Honored:


Additional Web Pages:

Eugene Wigner, 1902–1995, ORNL's 20th Century Superlative, ORNL Reporter, Number 43, November 2002

Eugene Paul Wigner, by Frederick Seitz, Erich Vogt, and Alvin M. Weinberg

ORNL Review, Eugene Wigner and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vol. 25, Nos. 3 and 4, 1992
Pages 4, 6 - 10, 14, 19, 28, 33 - 38, 47 - 48, 53, 57

Eugene Paul Wigner

Eugene Paul Wigner Papers


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