In the 1930s, The George Washington University served as a center of activity for theoretical physicists and as the backdrop for some of the most important conferences on theoretical physics ever held. It was on this campus that one of the most dramatic announcements of the century was made, the news that physicist Otto Hahn in Berlin had successfully split an atom. The date was January 26, 1939, and the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics, hosted by faculty members George Gamow and Edward Teller and attended by distinguished physicists from all over the world, listened as Niels Bohr of Copenhagen told the physicists the amazing news. The development gave GW a prominent place in scientific history.
It was not always so. In fact, when President Cloyd Heck Marvin assumed the presidency in 1927, the departments of biology and physics were in need of improvement. Accreditation by the Association of American Universities was postponed in 1929, partly because of inadequate science laboratories.
Recognizing the deficiencies, President Marvin set out to obtain major funding for the improvement of facilities, to attract distinguished scholars and consultants in research, and to reorganize the graduate study program. Credit for the improvements, which eventually led to GW's reaccreditation, was due not only to Dr. Marvin but also to Charles Riborg Mann, a renowned physicist who was one of GW's most influential trustees. Mann served as one of Marvin's chief advisors during the period.
The summer of 1930 took President Marvin to Europe where he was invited to lecture at the Geneva School of International Studies. While on a post-lecture tour, he came in contact with a then comparatively new and growing body of thought described as "theoretical physics." He also met two of the most outstanding theoreticians, George Gamow and Edward Teller, at the University of London.
It took the advice of another scientist, however, to convince Dr. Marvin to look more closely at theoretical physics as a way of enhancing GW's physics department. In consultations with John Merriam, President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Dr. Marvin was advised to speak to Merle Tuve of Carnegie's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. At the time, Dr. Marvin had a newly-acquired $100,000 and was planning to devote most of it to experimental physics. Tuve convinced the young President that he could easily spend the entire $100,000 on equipment and have no money for new physics professors. Instead he suggested the development of a theoretical physics section of the department and the hiring of some top theoreticians who would need only pencils and paper, travel money, colleagues and meetings. The department would be enhanced by the addition of some distinguished scientists; the costs to support their research would be minimal; and Dr. Marvin's $100,000 would have greatest impact. In addition, Dr. Tuve recommended that Dr. Marvin hire the young physicist George Gamow.
George Gamow was Russian-born, held a PhD from the University of Leningrad and was an associate member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He had formulated the first satisfactory theory of radioactivity. Though young, he had established a fine reputation working with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen and at other principal centers of scientific study. Marvin offered Dr. Gamow a full professorship at GW accompanied by a relatively high salary. In accepting the position, Gamow posed two conditions: first, that he be allowed to organize an annual conference on theoretical physics similar to ones held by Bohr in Copenhagen; second, that a second theoretical physicist be hired to work with him. Appointed in 1934 as a Visiting Professor, Gamow became a full Professor of Physics the following year. Edward Teller, who had also worked with Bohr in Copenhagen, was named Visiting Professor in 1935 and Professor of Physics in 1936, in accordance with Gamow's second condition. Teller received his PhD in 1930 from the University of Leipzig and was working for the Imperial Chemical Industries in London when he accepted the position at George Washington. His research in molecular structure was of great significance to theoretical physicists and chemists, and he represented a link to such renowned European physicists as Heisenberg, Pauli, Franck, and Fermi.
The sponsorship of the annual conferences that Gamow requested became a joint effort of The George Washington University and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. This association was a natural pairing because the Institution was conducting research in nuclear physics under Dr. Tuve in its Department of Terrestrial Magnetism.
The First Conference
The first Washington Conference, held in April 1935, was organized to allow theoretical physicists to discuss recent theoretical advances in nuclear physics as well as common problems. Among the subject matter for discussion were general nuclear models, nuclear transformations, the process of beta-disintegration and the effects of high-energy radiations. Each session opened with a brief introduction of the subject by the appointed leader leaving the balance of the time free for general discussion. Some of the discussion leaders were: Dr. G. Beck of the University of Kansas; Dr. H. Bethe of Cornell University; Dr. G. Breit of the University of Wisconsin; Dr. P.A.M. Dirac of Princeton University; Drs. S. Goudsmit and G.E. Uhlenbeck of the University of Michigan; Dr. A. Lande of Ohio State University; and Gamow. Each year's conference had a specific theme. In 1937 the third conference was on "The Problems of Elementary Particles," and Niels Bohr was in attendance for the first time. In 1938, Drs. Gamow and Teller undertook to combine the two interest groups of theoretical physics and astrophysics in what was one of the most important of the conferences. It was a brilliant pairing for, as Gamow reported in his final summary, "several specific contributions had been made toward formulating the next line of attack on the problems of stellar energy from the points of view of both physics and astronomy."
In 1939, Niels Bohr attended the Washington conference as part of a trip that included lectures at Princeton, where he was welcomed by John A. Wheeler, and a meeting with Enrico Fermi of Columbia University. The news that he brought with him would summon the beginning of a new age.
A New Age
After Bohr's dramatic announcement to the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics, the conference went completely off the originally planned track, according to Gamow. "Bohr and Fermi, both armed with chalk, started an animated discussion near the blackboard, and Tuve, recognizing that this discussion might be of paramount importance for war purposes, politely showed out two newspapermen covering the meeting. This was probably the first step toward atomic security. Nevertheless, the word 'fission' leaked into the press, and the next day Robert Oppenheimer telephoned to me from Berkeley to find out what it was all about" The announcement by Bohr and the following discussions heralded new horizons in physics.
In recognition of the momentous announcement at the 1939 Conference, the Victory Council Board of Review of the University at its 1945 meeting recommended that a plaque be placed in the room in which the announcement was made. The plaque, present today, reads, "In this room, January 26, 1939, Niels Bohr made the first public announcement of the successful disintegration of uranium into barium with the attendant release of approximately two hundred million electron volts of energy per disintegration. This announcement was heard by the physicists listed below who were attending the fifth of the Conferences on Theoretical Physics which are sponsored jointly by the Carnegie Institution of Washington and The George Washington University."
The Washington conferences continued annually through the 1940s, with the exception of the World War II years. Many of the attendees at the various conferences, including Teller, Bohr and Fermi would serve as members of the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb. Teller would also be a part of the group that produced the hydrogen bomb. The 1930s turned out to be a pivotal age for modern physics and golden years for the Physics Department at The George Washington University.
Note: This was first published in Arts and Sciences, CCGSAS Alumni Newsletter.