Elected For.Mem.R.S. 1970
Eugene Wigner was a towering leader of modern physics for more than half of the twentieth century. Although his greatest renown was associated with the research–article of symmetry theory to quantum physics and chemistry, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1963, his scientific work encompassed an astonishing breadth of science, perhaps unparalleled during his time.
In preparing this memoir, we have the impression we are attempting to record the monumental achievements of half a dozen scientists. There is the Wigner who demonstrated that symmetry principles are of great importance in quantum mechanics; who pioneered the application of quantum mechanics in the fields of chemical kinetics and the theory of solids; who was the first nuclear engineer; who formulated many of the most basic ideas in nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry; who was the prophet of quantum chaos; who served as a mathematician and philosopher of science; and the Wigner who was the supervisor and mentor of more than forty PhD students in theoretical physics during his career of over four decades at Princeton University.
The legacy of these contributions exists in two forms. First, there are the papers–in excess of 500–now included in eight volumes of his collected works (15)*. His legacy also resides in the many concepts and phenomena that bear his name. There is, for example, the Wigner–Eckart theorem for the addition of angular momenta, the Wigner effect in nuclear reactors, the Wigner correlation energy, as well as the Wigner crystal in solids, the Wigner force, the Breit–Wigner formula in nuclear physics, and the Wigner distribution in the quantum theory of chaos. is collection of essays Symmetries and reflections (14) provides an insightful view of the many intellectual matters that concerned him during a busy career. The recollections of his life recorded by Andrew Szanton when Wigner was in his eighties (Szanton 1992) provide a special insight into the circumstances of his life and the incidents that brought him to the fore.