Willis E. Lamb Jr., a Nobel prize-winning physicist

May 21, 2008 at 12:28 pm | Posted in physics, USA | Leave a comment

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Willis E. Lamb Jr., a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose work on the electron structure of the hydrogen atom revolutionized the quantum theory of matter, has died. He was 94.

Lamb died in a Tucson hospital from complications of a gallstone disorder on May 15, according to an announcement from the University of Arizona, where he was professor emeritus of physics and optical sciences.

Lamb worked as a physicist at various universities from the late 1930s until retiring from the University of Arizona in 2002.

Lamb was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1955 for research he conducted while working at Columbia University’s Columbia Radiation Laboratory. He was working on defense-related research into microwave sources for radar when he became interested in the properties of the hydrogen atom.

He designed and built a device in 1947 with Columbia graduate student R.C. Retherford to study the effect of microwave radiation on the hydrogen atom, according to a University of Arizona biography. That led to measurements that showed a change in the amount of energy emitted from the hydrogen atom in different states that became known as the “Lamb shift.”

The discovery led to changes in the basic concepts behind the application of quantum theory to electromagnetism. His work became one of the foundations of quantum electrodynamics, a key aspect of modern elementary particle physics.

“Clearly he was a brilliant and serious scientist,” his wife, Elsie Wattson Lamb, said in a statement released by the university. “But he was also deeply human.”

Born July 12, 1913, in Los Angeles, Lamb attended the University of California, Berkeley as an undergraduate and graduate student. His doctoral thesis was overseen by J. Robert Oppenheimer, who went on to lead the U.S. effort to develop the atomic bomb during World War II.

Lamb joined the faculty at Columbia University in 1938 and rose to became a full professor of physics. He later worked at Stanford University and Harvard University before becoming a fellow of New College at the University of Oxford, England, from 1956 to 1962.

In 1962 he became Henry Ford II Professor of Physics at Yale University. He became professor of physics and optical sciences at the University of Arizona in 1974, a post he retained until retirement.

Lamb married his first wife, historian Ursula Schaefer, in 1939. She died in 1996. A second marriage ended in divorce. He married Elsie Wattson earlier this year, and is also survived by a brother, Perry.


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