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G. E. Uhlenbeck

George Uhlenbeck, Hendrik Kramers, and Samuel Goudsmit circa 1928 in Ann Arbor.
Born December 6, 1900(1900-12-06)
Batavia, Dutch East Indies
Died October 31, 1988 (aged 87)
Boulder, Colorado, USA
Residence USA
Citizenship American
Ethnicity Dutch
Fields Physicist
Institutions Columbia University
University of Michigan
Rockefeller Institute
Princeton University
Alma mater University of Leiden
Doctoral advisor Paul Ehrenfest
Doctoral students Max Dresden
Ronald Forrest Fox
Boris Kahn
Emil Konopinski
Harold Hwa-Ling Szu
Known for Electron spin
Influenced Walter S. Huxford
Notable awards Max Planck medal (1964)
Lorentz Medal (1970)
Wolf Prize in Physics (1979)
National Medal of Science
He was the father of the biophysicist Olke Cornelis Uhlenbeck and the father-in-law of the mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck.

George Eugene Uhlenbeck (December 6, 1900, Batavia, Dutch East Indies – October 31, 1988, Boulder, Colorado) was a Dutch-American theoretical physicist. In 1925, he and Samuel Abraham Goudsmit introduced the concept of electron spin, which posits an intrinsic angular momentum for the electron.

Another of Uhlenbeck's important contributions is the co-invention of the Ornstein–Uhlenbeck process, which describes Brownian motion of particles in a fluid with friction.

Uhlenbeck married Else Ophorst in August 1927. During the Second World War he worked at MIT as a member of the team working on the development of radar. Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit were awarded the Max Planck medal in 1964. Uhlenbeck was also awarded the Lorentz Medal in 1970 and Wolf Prize in Physics in 1979. In addition, Uhlenbeck served as President of the American Physical Society in 1959.

Uhlenbeck was a student of Austrian physicist and mathematician Paul Ehrenfest[1] and colleague and friend of many of the great physicists of the era, including Enrico Fermi and Oskar Klein.

Descriptions of Uhlenbeck by his student E.G.D. Cohen[2]

E.G.D. Cohen, a student of Uhlenbeck's, says of his teacher

... [Uhlenbeck] often admonished me that rather than trying to be original, it was much more important to be clear and correct and to summarise critically the present status of a field in the Ehrenfest tradition. He wisely observed that what is often of lasting value is not the first original contribution to a problem, but rather the final clearly and critically written survey. That is certainly what he did in this Brownian motion paper!

Describing Uhlenbeck's work, Cohen writes:

Uhlenbeck's papers are all relatively short and stand out by their conciseness, precision, and clarity, finely honed to a deeper understanding of a basic problem in statistical physics. They do not contain long formal derivations and are almost all geared to concrete problems. ... they were of a classic nobility, mathematical purity and clarity ... He felt that something really original one did only once - like the electron-spin--the rest of one's time one spent on clarifying the basics.

Cohen also comments on the high quality of Uhlenbeck's teaching:

He was an inspiring teacher. With superbly organised and extremely clear lectures, he laid bare for everyone to see the beautiful structure of statistical mechanics, based on the principles of the founding fathers, Maxwell, Boltzmann, and Gibbs. Thus he transmitted to a younger generation what he conceived to be the essence of the past and the way to the future. In doing so, he educated several generations of physicists in statistical mechanics in a style rare in this century.


  1. ^ Uhlenbeck took up Ehrenfest's chair at Leiden after Ehrenfest's suicide.
  2. ^ E G D Cohen, George E Uhlenbeck and statistical mechanics, Amer. J. Phys. 58 (7) (1990), 619-625.

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