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A Refugee Nobelist

Lawrence Bush
May 24, 2017

Jack Steinberger, whose investigations of subatomic particles led to a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1988 (shared with co-researchers Leon M. Lederman and Melvin Schwartz), was born in Bad Kissingen, Germany on this date in 1921. His father was a cattle-dealer and cantor, his mother a hop-dealer and language teacher. Steinberger was sent out of Nazi Germany in 1934, at the age of 13, and was reunited with his parents in Chicago four years later. During World War II he joined the Army and was sent to the MIT radiation laboratory to help with the development of radar bomb sights; this was his first exposure to physics beyond a single college course. His post-war career included studies with Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller, among others at the University of Chicago, and with J. Robert Oppenheimer and others at Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Fired from Berkeley for refusing to sign a McCarthy-era loyalty oath, Steinberger joined the faculty at Columbia University and then became a project director at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where he remained for more than twenty years. His key contributions to physics involved designing experiments to investigate subatomic particle disintegration (“the neutrino beam method and the demonstration of the doublet structure of the leptons through the discovery of the muon neutrino,” according to the Today in Science History website). Steinberger is a Humanist Laureate in the International Academy of Humanism.

“Fermi suggested that I do the experiment . . . [which] required less than a year from its conception to its conclusion, in the end of the summer of 1948. It showed that the muon’s is a three-body decay, probably into an electron and two neutrinos, and helped lay the experimental foundation for the concept of a universal weak interaction.”--Jack Steinberger

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.