Jack Steinberger#

Short Biography of my life in physics#

Jack Steinberger
Geneva, 29.05.2001

I was born in Bad Kissingen, Germany, 25.05.1921. My father was Cantor in the Jewish Synagogue and taught Jewish religion in the public school, my mother gave private lessons in English and French. Hitler came to power in 1933, life for the Jewish community very quickly became very difficult, and in 1934 my father found a possibility to send his two older children to foster homes in the US. I am most grateful to “uncle” Barnett Faroll, a more than well to do grain broker, for taking me into his home in the Chicago northern suburbs. He also made it possible for my parents and younger brother to come to the US, and after graduating high school in 1938, I joined my parents who were helped to open a small delicatessen store in northern Chicago, where I worked in the evenings and weekends until the war in 1942. I studied chemical engineering at Armour (now Illinois) Institute of Technology; there was no money to study medicine, which I would have preferred. This came to an end after two years, when my scholarship could not be renewed, and I worked for a year as bottle washer in the labs of a pharmaceutical house, while going to night school at the University of Chicago. The following year University of Chicago as able to offer me a scholarship, and I could return to full time studies and get a B.S. in chemistry in 1942.

By that time the US was in world war two. In the fall of 1942 I enlisted in the US army in connection with a semester course of studies in physics, especially electromagnetism, to train personnel needed to operate the newly invented radar units. I also married the secretary of the signal corps office, which managed this operation. In the spring of 1943 I was ordered to the MIT Radiation Laboratory, the US center for the development of radar bombsights, and where Purcell and Schwinger played leading roles. It gave me the opportunity to learn some basic physics, attending some excellent courses given by Lazlo Tisza.

In July of 1945, after the fall of Germany, I was ordered to active service. The Hiroshima bomb fell during basic training. In the spring of 1946, a few months after the war’s end, I was released from army service, and with financial help for returning soldiers, was able to study for a PhD at the University of Chicago, and to do my PhD thesis under the great Fermi in 1948, on the range of electrons in mu-meson decay, a result which played an important role in the formulation of the “Universal Fermi Interaction” in 1949. It is difficult to overestimate the important role of Fermi in forming my future life in physics.

1948-49 I had the fortune to spend a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which housed no less than Einstein, Oppenheimer, von Neumann and Goedel. I became good friends with Freeman Dyson, and even managed a paper, now sometimes remembered for a first battle with the triangle diagram, which now plays such an important role in field theory. From there, on Wick’s invitation, I went to Berkeley, the first, and then the only, laboratory in which mesons could be produced artificially, and was able to study, in 1950, using the new electron synchrotron, invented and built by Edwin McMillan, the production of mesons by photons, as well as to demonstrate, with Panofsky and Stellar, the existence of the neutral partner of the pi meson.

1950 I was taken on by Columbia University in New York, which had just opened a cyclotron laboratory, and studied the properties of the pions, their spin, parity and nuclear interaction, using scintillation counters as at Berkeley before. 1953 saw the invention of the bubble chamber by Glaser. This new technique for tracking particles was ideally suited to investigate the properties of the “strange particles”, discovered in 1947. These could be produced artificially at the 3 GeV Cosmotron proton synchrotron of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, operational in 1954. The first bubble chamber experiment was that done in our15 cm diameter chamber. It marked a big step forward in the study of the strange particles. A few months later the chamber had grown to 30 cm and we could discover the Σ0 hyperon. Bubble chambers went on to dominate particle physics experimentation, to grow to 3m in diameter, until they were superceded by advances in electronic detection techniques in the ‘70’s.

In 1960 both at Brookhaven and at CERN in Europe, 25 GeV proton accelerators became operational, and for the first time it was possible to generate neutrino beams of sufficient intensity to study neutrino interactions. At BNL we constructed a ten-ton neutrino detector, using the newly invented spark chamber technique, and in 1962 were able to show that our neutrinos, which were produced in association with muons, were not the same as the neutrinos of β decay, associated with electrons.

In 1964 CP violation was discovered, and my interest focused on this new phenomenon, at first, during a sabbatical at CERN, 1965-’66, to see and study the interference of K-short and K-long lived mesons in their decay to two pions. In 1968 I accepted a permanent position at CERN. In 1972-’74, with the help of the newly invented and much more performing multi-wire proportional chambers, it was possible to use this interference to study the properties of this CP violating system with better accuracy and so to see clearly that time reversal T is also violated, while the triple product, CPT, seems to be conserved.

Starting 1974 a group of us decided to construct a much more ambitious neutrino detector, an assembly of 1000 tons of magnetized iron plates, interleaved with scintillation counters and multi-wire, time-drift proportional chambers, to study neutrino interactions at the 400 GeV proton synchrotron, then under construction at CERN. The neutrinos were now a tool, which permitted the study of the structure of the nucleon, discovered 1969 at Stanford. The most important result was the confirmation, in 1978, of the predictions of the new theory of strong interactions, QCD, of deviations from the simple, underlying, scale invariance of the more primitive parton model.

In 1980 some colleagues started thinking about a detector to be used at the electron-positron collider then planned at CERN. It resulted in the 10,000 ton ALEPH detector, with a team of 400 physicists, for whom I was spokesman for the first years. It produced a wealth of interesting results, the first and most important (in my opinion), that there are three and only three fermion families.

As for family, the first produced 2 boys, the second, started in 1962, a boy and a girl, the latter doing now (2001) a PhD in atomic physics at MIT.

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