Royal Society Publishing

Rudolf Ernst Peierls. 5 June 1907 — 19 September 1995

Sabine Lee

Elected FRS 1945


Born into an assimilated Jewish family in Berlin in the early twentieth century, Rudolf Peierls studied theoretical physics with many of the greatest minds within the physics community, including Sommerfeld, Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr. His Jewish background made a career in Germany all but impossible, and Rudolf Peierls and his Russian–born wife, Genia, settled in the UK, where Peierls took up a professorship in mathematical physics at Birmingham in 1937. Peierls's discovery, together with his Birmingham colleague Otto Frisch, of the theoretical feasibility of an atomic weapon based on a self–sustaining nuclear chain reaction was instrumental in the setting up of the UK government committee studying the possibility of manufacturing nuclear weapons. Peierls continued to contribute to the British and later to the British–American–Canadian effort to produce an atomic bomb, and he became group leader of the implosion group at Los Alamos. After the war Peierls returned to the UK and he built a world–class school of theoretical physics at Birmingham before moving on to Oxford in 1963. Like many of his colleagues who had contributed to the development of nuclear weapons, Peierls devoted much of his time and energy to the control of these weapons, to nuclear disarmament and to the promotion of greater understanding between East and West, most notably through his activities within the framework of the Pugwash Movement.