Winter 2001 Bulletin

In Remembrance: Herman Feshbach 1917–2000

Herman Feshbach, Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT and president of the Academy from 1982 to 1986, died in Cambridge on December 22, 2000. A distinguished theoretical physicist, he worked throughout his career to advance scientific freedom and East-West exchange—concerns that he brought to the international programs of the Academy.

After receiving his BS at the City College of New York, Feshbach came to MIT, where he completed his graduate studies and for more than fifty years served on the faculty of the department of physics. He also helped to create the MIT Center for theoretical physics, which he later directed from 1967 to 1973.

Feshbach's scientific work centered on the theories underlying the structure and behavior of the nuclei of atoms. He discovered the analytical tool known as the Feshbach resonance: the phenomenon that occurs when atoms collide and one lends just the right quantum of energy to the other so that they bind together long enough to be seen and used, almost like reacting chemicals. He coauthored two seminal textbooks: Methods of Theoretical Physics (with Philip M. Morse) and Theoretical Nuclear Physics (with Amos DeShalit). Although his findings were extremely important for the development of nuclear weapons, he was a strong opponent of the military application of nuclear physics, helping to found the Union of Concerned Scientists and serving as its first chairman. He also championed the cause of refuseniks, particularly Soviet dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov.

When Feshbach assumed the presidency of the Academy, the nuclear arms debate was at a critical point. During his first year in office, the Committee on International Security Studies was established to conduct a series of studies on nuclear deterrence and defense policy and expand the Academy's effort to advance productive nongovernmental exchange with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The Academy also became the US national member organization of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis and undertook its first joint project with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Feshbach took particular pleasure in organizing a major international symposium commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Niels Bohr; the conference focused on the history and status of quantum mechanics, with a final session devoted to Bohr’s interest in the threat posed by nuclear weapons and the opportunities implicit in improved East-West relations.

The Academy honors Herman Feshbach for his passion for scientific truth and intellectual freedom and mourns his passing.