Professor of Physics, Duke University
Editor-in-Chief, Society of Korean-American Scholars
Paper presented at
The Centennial Celebration of Korean Immigration to the United States Conference
THE KOREAN AMERICANS: PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE
August 16-18, 2002, Fairview Park Marriott Hotel, Falls Church, Virginia 22042
Benjamin Whiso Lee (1935-1977) was a brilliant theoretical physicist of our time,
unquestionably the highest-achieving Korean-American physicist in the history of the
Korean-Americans. His life was tragically cut short by a traffic accident in the
summer of 1977; at the time he was only 42 years old, but already a rising star in
the international community of elementary particle physics.
Often, Ben Lee is compared to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the legendary theoretical
physicist who served for a long time as the Director of the Institute of Advanced
Study in Princeton, but remembered widely by the public as the Director of the
Manhattan Project of World War II that developed the first atomic bomb.
After his untimely death, some imaginative
authors in Korea published fictions
in which attempts have been made to connect Ben Lee, his accidental death,
and Park Chung-Hee to an alleged plot by the South Korean government to
develop nuclear weapons. This has helped to cast some dark clouds of intrigue,
rumors and wild speculation upon the legacy of Ben Lee.
Ben Lee and I entered the Seoul National University at the same year, in 1952
when the SNU campus was temporarily relocated in Pusan; Ben entered the
chemical engineering and I the electrical engineering departments of the then
College of Engineering. By 1953 Ben came to the US to pursue his study; I came
in 1954. Our careers ran pretty much on parallel tracks, pursuing theoretical
elementary particle physics. The last time I met up with Ben was in 1976, at
an international conference at Stanford; he just returned from a visit to Korea
to advise Korea of the importance of established strong basic sciences.
A year later, he died in a traffic accident on an interstate highway.
A Brief Timeline of Benjamin Whiso Lee
Born in Seoul, Korea on January 1, 1935
Died on June 16, 1977 at the age of 42.
Entered Seoul National University, Chemical Engineering in 1952
M.S. in 1958, University of Pittsburgh
Ph.D. in 1960, University of Pennsylvania (at the age of 25)
1961-62: Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton
1961-63: Assistant Professor, U of Penn.
1963-65: Associate Professor, U of Penn.
1965-66: Professor, U of Penn
1966-76: Professor, Inst of Theoretical Physics, SUNY at Stony Brook.
1973- till death: Head, Theoretical Physics Department,
Fermi National Accelerator Lab
Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Excerpts from the obituary published in Physics Today on September 1977:
Benjamin W. Lee, head of the theoretical physics department
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and professor of physics at the
University of Chicago, was tragically killed in an automobile accident
near Keewanee, Illinois on 16 June. He was traveling to the summer
meeting of the Fermilab Program Advisory Committee in Aspen,
Colorado. The other members of his family who were accompanying
him were not seriously injured.
Lee was widely regarded as one of the world's leading physicists
on the theory of elementary particles.//.. Lee had one of the broadest
ranges of interests and research of any physicist of his generation, but he
returned again and again to the study of symmetry principles and the weak
Lee felt a strong sense of gratitude to older physicists who had helped to
advance his career, he in turn took every possible opportunity to help the
young physicists of the next generation to make their way into research..//.
Question: Ben Lee: Korea's Oppenheimer?
Answer: It depends on which Oppenheimer
J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-67)
U.S. theoretical physicist and science administrator, noted as director of
the Los Alamos laboratory during the Manhattan Project that developed the
atomic bomb (1943- 45) and as director of the Institute for Advanced Study,
Oppenheimer, the brilliant theoretical
physicist and teacher/mentor,
can be characterized as
2. Person from whom everyone sought answers to their questions
3. Profound teacher/mentor
4. However, Oppenheimer lacks any truly important milestone contribution
of historical proportion; whereas Oppenheimer was already a living
legend during the period in which quantum physics was founded, his
contributions do not compare with the likes of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg,
Schroedinger, Dirac, and Pauli.
Benjamin Lee's career had an uncanny parallel to that of Oppenheimer.
Brilliant and a person from whom many theoretical and experimental physicists
sought counsel. As the Head of the Theoretical Physics Department at the
Fermi National Accelerator Lab, he was at the epicenter of theoretical and
experimental elementary particle physics in the 60s and 70s, the golden
years of particle physics. He contributed much, but again as with
Oppenheimer, he lacked a lasting monumental work of historical
proportion. Perhaps, that was yet to come had he lived. In this sense,
one can answer in the affirmative: Yes, Benjamin Lee could have been Korea's
Oppenheimer the brilliant theoretical physicist and teacher/mentor.
Oppenheimer, the director of the
Manhattan Project, the development
of the atomic bomb.
There are widely held speculations
in Korea that Ben Lee was somehow
associated with the attempt by South Korea, under the strongman rule of
Park Chung-Hee, to develop Korea's own atomic weapon program. This
insinuation was spread by works of fiction in Korea that portrayed him as
such, based on wild imaginations of some authors.
I am a theoretical elementary particle physicist
whose timeline closely
parallels that of Ben Lee. In fact, I met up with him on many occasions.
Last time we met was in the campus of Stanford University at an
international physics conference in 1976, a year before his death.
He just came back from Korea in connection with establishing an
AID program to improve basic sciences in Korea.
If one looks at the career line, during the 16 years
after getting Ph.D.
and until his death, Ben Lee spent 1 year at the Institute of Advanced
Study, 5 years at the University of Pennsylvania (during which time
he was on many occasions at the IAS on leave from Penn), 7 years at
the Institute of Theoretical Physics at SUNY at Stony Brook (with
C N Yang), and 3 years as the Director of the Theoretical Physics
Department at FNAL. The 60s and 70s were the busiest golden years
of particle physics during which the so-called Standard Model would
come to be established. Ben was up to his ears in theoretical elementary
At no time during his career, Ben was ever associated
with any of
the national weapons lab such as Los Alamos, Livermore or Sandia. Now,
we all know the physics principle of nuclear fission, but that does not
make any of us, nuclear and particle physicists, experts in nuclear
weaponry. We all know how an internal combustion works: a mixture
of gasoline and air, when ignited by sparks, can be source of energy,
but that is a far cry from us being expert automobile engine designers!
No, Ben Lee had not been
associated with any of the nuclear
weaponry project. In this sense, the answer to the question, "Korea's
Oppenheimer?" is most certainly no.