Hungarian-born American physicist, joint winner, with J. Hans D. Jensen
of West Germany and Maria Goeppert Mayer of the United States, of the
Nobel Prize for Physics in 1963. He received the prize for his many
contributions to nuclear physics, which include his formulation of the
law of conservation of parity.
At Gottingen, Wigner formulated his law of the conservation of parity, which implies that it is impossible to distinguish left from right in fundamental physical interactions. This theory became an integral part of quantum mechanics, but in 1956 the physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang showed that parity is not always conserved in weak interactions of subatomic particles. At Princeton, Wigner determined that the nuclear force that binds neutrons and protons together is necessarily short-range and independent of any electric charge. He also developed the principles involved in applying mathematical group theory to investigate the energy levels of atomic nuclei. In 1936 he worked out the theory of neutron absorption, which later proved useful in building nuclear reactors.
In 1939, Wigner helped Leo Szilard persuade Albert Einstein to write
the historic letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that set in motion
the U.S. atomic-bomb project. During World War II he worked at the Metallurgical
Laboratory at the University of Chicago, where he helped Enrico Fermi
construct the first atomic pile. Wigner also conducted research on quantum
mechanics, the theory of the rates of chemical reactions, and nuclear
structure. His publications include Gruppentheorie und Ihre Anwendung
auf die Quantenmechanik der Atomspektren (1931; Group Theory and Its
Application to the Quantum Mechanics of Atomic Spectra), a classic text,
and Symmetries and Reflections (1967).
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