Saturday, October 15, 2011

John Van Vleck

In my continuing effort to highlight the invaluable contribution to physics from physicists who are not household names, I would like to present, this time, the body of work done by John Van Vleck. This article is based on the symposium on his life during the last APS March Meeting this year.

What I found was fascinating was how the lives of 3 major physics figures intertwined through their parents.

The title of Charles Slichter’s lecture was “Remembering Van: Three Madison Families and other Tales.” In it, he spoke about the influential roles played at the University of Wisconsin by his grandfather, Charles S. Slichter, and the fathers of John Bardeen and John Van Vleck. The tale begins in 1903 when Charles Van Hise, a distinguished geologist, was named President of the University of Wisconsin. In 1904, Van Hise recruited Charles Bardeen, John’s father, to found a medical school at the University. In 1906, Van Hise appointed Slichter to head the mathematics department. Slichter’s first action as department head was to recruit Edward B. Van Vleck to bring strength in pure mathematics. John Bardeen and John Van Vleck did their undergraduate work at Wisconsin, finishing in 1920 and 1926, respectively. After Bardeen finished his Master’s in engineering, Van Vleck provided guidance and help, recommending him to Trinity College, Cambridge University for a fellowship and later to Harvard University for appointment as a Junior Fellow. Charles Slichter, who did his undergraduate work at Harvard, had Van Vleck as an advisor. Van Vleck recommended he remain at the university for his Ph. D. and later suggested that he do his doctoral research on magnetic resonance with Edward Purcell.
This goes to show that, while a lot of our success certainly depends on our own effort, how other things influenced our lives are certainly a matter of chance and serendipity.

And a brief "disclaimer", I am an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I continue to be amazed at how many important, historical figures in physics had passed through the same hallways that I had walked through many years ago.


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