Sir Rudolf Ernst Peierls (1907-1995)
5, 1907, Berlin
September 19, 1995
German (pre 1940)
British (post 1940)
|Institutions||University of Birmingham
University of Washington
|Alma mater||University of Berlin
University of Munich
University of Leipzig
University of Manchester
|Doctoral advisor||Werner Heisenberg|
|Other academic advisors||Arnold Sommerfeld|
|Doctoral students||Fred Hoyle
Edwin Ernest Salpeter
|Other notable students||Noor Muhammad Butt|
|Known for||Frisch-Peierls memorandum
Coining the term 'umklapp process'
Charge-density wave theory
|Notable awards||Royal Medal
Lorentz Medal (1962)
Max Planck Medal (1963)
Enrico Fermi Award (1980)
Matteucci Medal (1982)
Copley Medal (1986)
Sir Rudolf Ernst Peierls, (June 5, 1907, Berlin – September 19, 1995, Oxford), was a German-born British physicist. Rudolf Peierls had a major role in Britain's nuclear program, but he also had a role in many modern sciences. His impact on physics can probably be best described by his obituary in Physics Today: "Rudolph Peierls...a major player in the drama of the irruption of nuclear physics into world affairs...".
The son of assimilated Jewish parents, he assisted Egon Orowan in understanding the force required to move a dislocation which would be expanded on by Frank Nabarro and called the Peierls-Nabarro force. In 1929, he studied solid-state physics in Zurich under the tutelage of Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli. His early work on quantum physics led to the theory of positive carriers to explain the thermal and electrical conductivity behaviors of semiconductors. He was a pioneer of the concept of "holes" in semiconductors. He actually established "zones" before Léon Brillouin despite Léon's name being currently attached to the idea and applied it to phonons. Doing this, he discovered the Boltzmann equations for phonons and the Umklapp process. Physics Today states "His many papers on electrons in metals have now passed so deeply into the literature that it is hard to identify his contribution to conductivity in magnetic fields and to the concept of a hole in the theory of electrons in solids."
He was studying on a Rockefeller Scholarship at Cambridge University when Adolf Hitler came to power in his native Germany. Granted leave to remain in Britain, he worked in Manchester under a fund set up for refugees, with Hans Bethe on photodisintegration and the statistical mechanics of alloys when asked by James Chadwick. Their results still serve as the basis for mean-field theories of structural phase changes in complete alloys. Moving back to Cambridge, he worked with P.G.L. Kapur at the Mond Laboratory on superconductivity and liquid helium. The group derived the dispersion formula for nuclear reactions originally given in perturbation theory by Gregory Breit and Eugene Wigner, but now included generalizing conditions. This is now known as the Kapur-Peierls derivation. In 1937, he became Professor of Physics at the University of Birmingham, England.
In 1939, he started working on atomic research with Otto Robert Frisch and James Chadwick. Ironically, both Peierls and Frisch were excluded from working on radar (then known as RDF) as it was considered too secret for scientists with foreign backgrounds.
In March 1940, he co-authored the Frisch-Peierls memorandum with Frisch. This short paper was the first to set out how one could construct an atomic bomb from a small amount of fissionable uranium-235. They calculated that about 1 kg would be needed. Until then it had been assumed that such a bomb would require many tons of uranium, and consequently was impractical to build and use. The paper was pivotal in igniting the interest of first the British and later the American authorities in atomic weapons. In 1941 its findings made their way to the United States through the report of the MAUD Committee, an important trigger in the establishment of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent development of the atomic bomb. He was also responsible for the recruitment of his compatriot Klaus Fuchs to the British project, an action which was to result in Peierls falling under suspicion when Fuchs was exposed as a Soviet spy in 1950. In 1995, The Spectator garnered outrage from his family when they alleged Rudolf Peierls was a spy codenamed "perls" for the Soviet Union.
Following the signature of the Quebec Agreement in August, 1943, Peierls joined the Manhattan Project in the United States along with Klaus Fuchs who he recruited for the project, initially in New York and later at the Los Alamos Laboratory, where he played an important role in the development of the atomic bomb. Notably, when the materials were shipped to build the first nuclear bomb at Los Alamos, Rudolf Peierls assembled the bomb by hand.
After the war, Peierls reassumed his position in the physics department at the University of Birmingham where he worked until 1963 before joining the University of Oxford. At Birmingham he worked on nuclear forces, scattering, quantum field theories, collective motion in nuclei, transport theory, and statistical mechanics. Also while at Birmingham, he worked as a consultant to the British atomic programme at Harwell. He was knighted in 1968, and retired from Oxford in 1974. He wrote several books including Quantum Theory of Solids, The Laws of Nature (1955), Surprises in Theoretical Physics (1979), More Surprises in Theoretical Physics (1991) and an autobiography, Bird of Passage (1985). Concerned with the nuclear weapons he had helped to unleash, he worked on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, was President of the Atomic Scientists' Association in the UK, and was a major player in the Pugwash movement.
He was invited to deliver the Rutherford Memorial Lecture in 1952, was awarded the Lorentz Medal in 1962, and in 1980 he received the Enrico Fermi Award from the United States Government for exceptional contribution to the science of atomic energy.