Saturday, March 08, 2008

Frederick Seitz (1911-2008)

Frederick Seitz, one of the founding founders of condensed matter physics, was born on the Independence Day of 1911 to a family of German immigrant baker in San Francisco and left us on Sunday, March 2nd, 2008, at age of 96+.
L.A. Times
New York Sun
The New York Times
The Washington Post
He started to study biochemistry but switched to mathematics pretty soon afterwards, to earn a degree at Stanford in 1932.

One of his main pioneering contributions to condensed matter physics was back in the 1930s. As Eugene Wigner's graduate student at Princeton (he only needed 2 years for the PhD degree), he calculated some physical properties of bulk sodium from the known properties of sodium ions. Similar work was useful for the later development of transistors and electronics.

In 1940, he published "The Modern Theory of Solids" that became the Holy Scripture of the field for quite some time; see other things at amazon.com. The 1943 text "The Physics of Metals" was quite authoritative, too. During the war, he helped to develop armor-piercing bullets for the army and find design problems with the atomic bomb (with Wigner). Later, he was working on the Hydrogen bomb, too.

In the following decade, he studied the diffusion leading to crystalline structures of atoms (and defended resumption of atmospheric testing after some Soviet provocations).

Since the late 1950s, he focused on administrative work as a boss of the American Institute of Physics and NATO's science advisor. In 1962, he was elected president of the National Academy of Sciences that used to be a part-time job. He transformed it into a full-time job and tried it for the first time.

In 1968, he became president of Rockefeller University. He couldn't expand it much because of the economical weakness of the 1970s. But he created some PhD and MD programs and founded a center for ecology. R.J. Reynolds Industries approached him in 1978 to oversee USD 45 million dedicated to medical research.

Almost none of it was connected with smoking but loads of aggressive activists - that scum has been around for quite some time - have promoted him to a symbol of suppression of the smoking-cancer links anyway. In fact, he was convinced that active smoking causes cancer since he was a kid (from his dad): he has never changed opinions about it. He was skeptical about the health effects of secondhand smoke.

In the 1980s, he became the chairman of the SDI (star wars) advisory board. In 1984, he founded the George C. Marshall Institute in Washington together with Jastrow and Nierenberg and became a leading climate skeptic, criticizing the 1995 IPCC report and urging scientists to sign the Oregon petition in 1998 (18,000 did). Before that, in 1997, he wrote "The Science Matrix" about the rise of the scientific method. He has also disputed the damaging role of CFCs for the ozone layer.

Even very recently, he was very active. In 2008 (!!!), he published the autobiography, "On The Frontier". He wrote e.g. the foreword to the NIPCC report in February 2008.

His awards, including the 1973 National Medal of Science (for condensed matter physics), and four great-grandchildren could be listed here. Seitz believed in a form of God represented by a great remaining overwhelming mystery of the Universe. The world has lost a rather exceptional figure.

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