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Roman Smoluchowski (1910–1996)

Published onJan 01, 1997
Roman Smoluchowski (1910–1996)

Roman Smoluchowski was born in Zakopane, Poland on 31 August 1910. He died in Austin, Texas on 12 January 1996 after a distinguished career in industrial and academic research that spanned both physics and astrophysics. He received his master's degree in physics from the University of Warsaw in 1933 and a doctorate in physics and mathematics from the University of Groningen in 1935. He spent a postdoctoral year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where, with Eugene Wigner, he wrote the seminal paper on the application of group theory to solid state physics. He then returned to Poland to become head of the Department of Physics and Metals at the University of Warsaw.

Roman escaped from Poland in 1939, when Warsaw was caught between the Russian and German fronts. Knowing that the penalty for attempted escape was death, but that for smuggling was life imprisonment, Roman and two friends loaded rucksacks with tobacco and made an attempt to cross the Russian lines. They were captured and thrown in prison as smugglers. The prison was turned over to the Germans, who could not be concerned with mere smugglers and released them. Roman tried again by paying a man who was smuggling people into Lithuania. He and many others got off the train and crossed the border on foot to await the inspection of the train. Gunfire broke out as some were discovered. Sensing that most people would flee, Roman ran toward the gunfire and managed to reboard the train. In Latvia, he obtained a false name and British Passport through his sister in the US and her connections to the Queen of Sweden. He flew to Sweden on a DC-3, having exchanged "hellos" with the German guard inspecting passports and thus exhausting the total command of English of both of them. From Sweden, he went to Norway, where he caught a freighter headed for the US only days before Germany invaded Norway.

In the US, Eugene Wigner invited Roman back to Princeton as an instructor in physics and helped him to acquire a visa leading to his US citizenship in 1944. In 1941, Roman became a research physicist at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York. He worked on intelligence matters there, and among the pieces of information to which he was given access was a list of Polish citizens scheduled for capture and execution by the Germans. One of the names on the list was Roman Smoluchowski.

In 1946, Roman became an associate professor of metallurgy at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and then a professor of physics in 1950. In the 1950's he also began an association with the solid-state physics group at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. He was a Fulbright Fellow at the Sorbonne in 1956. In 1960, he moved to Princeton University as a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and as the first director of the interdisciplinary program in solid state and materials science. He worked on structural defects, magnetism, and order-disorder transformations in metals and alloys, mechanisms of radiation damage, stability of point defects in alkali halides, and the application of solid-state physics to hard biological tissue. At Princeton, Roman also began to apply his knowledge of solid state physics to astrophysical problems. He studied radiation damage on lunar materials prior to the Apollo landings. He also worked on the interior structure and magnetic fields of Jupiter and the other gas giants.

Roman retired from Princeton in 1978 and became a professor at the University of Texas in Austin with joint appointments in the departments of astronomy and physics. In Austin, he continued to supervise graduate students and to do research on the interactions of dust and ice particles in space with their environments, applying this to the properties of interstellar dust grains, planetary ring systems, and the thermal evolution of cometary nuclei. In 1991 the International Astronomical Union named asteroid no. 4530 after Roman in honor of his 80th birthday.

Roman served on advisory councils for the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of Defense, Oak Ridge National Lab, and educational institutions. He campaigned for the establishment of, and was the first chair of, the Division of Condensed Matter of the American Physical Society, in 1947. He was the editor of six books and the author of four others and nearly 300 research publications. He also made numerous contributions to popular science books, magazines, and encyclopedias. His book, The Solar System: The Sun, Planets, and Life, written for the Scientific American Library in 1983 has been published in at least five languages.

In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Roman was an accomplished amateur painter and collector of art. Roman was the epitome of gentility, grace, intelligence, civilization, and good humor. He touched many people who will miss him greatly.

Photo (available in PDF version) courtesy University of Texas, at Austin.

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