LOTHAR W. NORDHEIM (1899-
|Lothar Nordheim, 1954
Lothar Wolfgang Nordheim was born in Munich, Germany in 1899. In l923
he received his Ph. D. degree in Physics from the University of
Göttingen. In the following years he took part in the efforts
to apply the quantum theory to the understanding of atomic structure
and to its behavior. As the tools of modern quantum theory became
increasingly available, he applied them to the study of solids, and
made a long series of distinguished contributions to the early
development of solid state physics. Among his well known
papers are those on the work function of metals, thermionic emission
from metals, the resistivity of metals and alloys, and the rectifying
action of semiconductor - to-metal contacts. Nordheim’s
interests were in the quantum theory of matter, the structure of
metals, cosmic radiation and nuclear physics. He worked with Edward
Teller on the muon, a problem that arose from his interest in cosmic
rays. He was also very active in the early 30's on the Fermi theory of
beta decay and he worked with Hans Bethe on meson decay.
His distinguished contributions to this field led him to be invited to
write a long article for the famous Mueller Pouillets Handbook of
Physics, where he dealt with the statistical and kinetic theory of the
metallic state, and the quantum theory of magnetism. During this period
he lectured at Göttingen, and was the holder of a Rockefeller
Foundation Research Fellowship, a Lorentz Fellowship, and he was also a
Visiting Professor at the University of Moscow.
As a Jew, he had to leave Germany in 1934. After his tenure of a
Lorentz research fellowship in Holland, he immigrated to the U.S.A in
1934. He came to Purdue University as a Visiting Professor, under the
sponsorship of the Emergency Committee for Displaced German Scholars.
At Purdue he directed the Ph. D. research of graduate students in the
field of solid state physics, while he began to turn his own attention
to the study of cosmic rays. During the following years he participated
in the analyses of cosmic ray phenomena that finally led to the modern
understanding of the role of mesons in cosmic ray showers. In this work
he collaborated with his wife, Gertrud Pöschl, who also worked
actively on the theory of the structure of polyatomic molecules and
In 1937 Nordheim accepted a Professorship at Duke University. When the
Manhattan project was set up, he was called upon to accept important
responsibilities at the Oak Ridge facility. He served as section chief
in the "Clinton Laboratories", the forerunner of the present Oak Ridge
National Laboratory, and from 1945 to 1947 he was Director of the
Physics Division of that laboratory. In 1947 he returned to Duke, while
continuing to serve as consultant at Oak Ridge and the Los Alamos
laboratory. During this period he worked on the theory of cosmic ray
showers, and was one of the earliest contributors to the development of
the shell theory of nuclear structure. In 1956 he accepted a research
position at the John J. Hopkins Laboratory for Pure and Applied Science
of General Atomics in San Diego, where he became Chairman of the
Theoretical Physics Department, and continued research in the fields in
which he was involved in the early days at Oak Ridge, namely reactor
and neutron physics. His activities in the Atomic Energy Field are documented ina memorandum.
He died in La Jolla on Oct. 5, 1985.
He received many honors, among them being an honorary Doctor of Science
from the University of Karlsruhe in Germany in 1951 and from Purdue
University in 1963. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society.
He gave the first Fritz London Memorial Lecture at Duke University in
In 1935 Nordheim married Gertrud Pöschl, who was also a
physicist and who, after they came to Duke in 1937, worked in
Hertha Sponer's laboratory. The Nordheims returned to Germany in 1949 with their son Rick and while on this visit Mrs Nordheim was fatally hit by a truck while on a bicycle. L.C. Biedenharn, J.B. Duke Professor at Duke,
reported (in 1989) that Nordheim had told him that he had
never really recovered from this blow and this was a major reason for
leaving Duke University for California to get a change.
From Biedenharn’s point of view the most important work of
Nordheim in the postwar period is his work on spins, moments and shells
in nuclei. He extended his interests in beta decay to include beta
decay in the nuclear shell model. Nordheim was one of the founders of
the nuclear shell model and gave the basic coupling rules for spins in
shells which he had deduced from the analysis of weak interactions.
Although he did not know it for a fact, Biedenharn was convinced that
Nordheim is the one who was instrumental in getting Henry Newson to
join Duke University after WW II and in setting the direction
on the study of nuclear physics. The nuclear laboratory, later known as
TUNL (Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory), has been
internationally known and respected since the early 50's.