Student Presentations at the 2008 Forum Sessions

By Virginia Trimble and George Zimmerman

In recent years, the Forum has begun attracting some of our younger colleagues interested in the history of physics to present papers on their work at APS meetings. Since 2005 we have been offering awards of $600 for partial travel support to graduate or undergraduate students who have submitted abstracts accepted for our contributed sessions at the March or April meetings. These awards honor distinguished physicists no longer alive, as selected by the donors, beginning with the Bardeen student awards in 2005. Two graduate students and one undergraduate student received such awards at the 2008 APS meetings.

The two students at the March meeting were Cesar Rodriguez-Rosario and Kavan Modi, who were both about to defend their Ph.D. dissertations at the University of Texas, Austin. They presented their work in both the Forum and general theory sessions. The award citations, checks, and brief biographies of the physicists being honored were presented at the outset of our contributed session.

Rodriguez-Rosario was born and did his undergraduate work in Puerto Rico. His Ph.D. thesis is on theoretical quantum mechanics, focusing on quantum information, open quantum systems, and decoherence. His presentation, entitled “The Increasingly Disordered History of Entropy,” traced the long debate about entropy from the mechanics of Lucretius to modern information theory, with illustrious contributors such as Boltzmann, Carnot, Clausius, Laplace, Maxwell, von Neumann, Prigogine, Shannon, and Szilard. The award was given to honor Gregor Wentzel (1898–1978), who earned his doctorate in 1921 as a student of Arnold Sommerfeld at the University of Munich. Wentzel, Hendrik Kramers, and Léon Brillouin independently developed what was known as the Wentzel-Kramers-Brillouin approximation, also known as the WKB method, classical approach, and the phase-integral method. In 1948 Wentzel began a professorship at the University of Chicago, retiring in 1970 after a distinguished career.

Modi was born in India and at age 13 came to the United States, where most of his education occurred. He attended Embry-Riddle College and took part in programs of the Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he studied space systems engineering; he also was a summer intern at the Kennedy Space Center and Fermilab. His thesis concerns unstable quantum systems, open quantum systems, and quantum optics. Modi’s presentation, “The Stolen Brain of Einstein” describes the long journey this brain has taken in the last 52 years. It was removed by pathologist Thomas S. Harvey, who did not really have permission to do so. Only later did he convince Einstein’s son Hans that this was done was for good purposes. Modi’s award honored Rolfe Eldridge Glover III (1924–2004), a professor at the University of Maryland, one of the researchers to find evidence for the energy gap in superconductivity, which was a fundamental idea used in formulating the Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory of superconductivity.

At the April meeting, Princeton undergraduate Samuel Fletcher was the student awardee, sponsored by Donat G. Wentzel in honor of his late mother-in-law Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906–1972). Fletcher spoke about “The Manhattan Project and its Effects on American Women Scientists,” displaying extraordinary grace under pressure. His prepared talk had somehow vanished in the Chicago airport, but he reconstituted it the night before the Manhattan Project session (see pp. 12–13) as a PowerPoint presentation. And then the projector failed completely! (It was later discovered that a critical component had not been plugged in.) But the speaker carried on, with fewer exact numbers and lists of names than he had planned, and with some extraordinarily interesting details.

Fletcher cited the 1999 book Their Day in the Sun by Ruth Howes and Caroline Herzenberg, about the women of the Manhattan Project, and its review by Margaret Rossiter. Of about 130,000 people involved, only about 300 were women at Los Alamos, and another 100 or so at Hanford. There were also at least a few women working under the bleachers in Chicago. To a considerable extent, all were employed because of the wartime labor shortage, though some of the women (Leona Marshall Libby is the one you will most probably have heard of) were every bit as qualified as many of the men. They were, of course, usually paid less.

Many of the technically trained, though non-Ph.D., women worked as “computers,” processing numerical data according to algorithms laid down by others. The extent to which various women were provided with household help, including child-care, displayed an ambiguous (though not necessarily unfair) attitude toward their multi-tasking, highest priority going to those who worked full time and had children. (The Los Alamos birthrate was remarkably high, presumably for other reasons.) In a gross generalization of what Fletcher said, participation in the Manhattan Project was not the career-booster for women that it became for many of the men, who returned to civilian life with job offers at multiple prestigious institutions.

We are particularly pleased to note that Fletcher plans to pursue graduate work in philosophy of science at UC Irvine next year.

Please contact Forum Secretary-Treasurer Thomas Miller ( if you would like to honor a physicist in this way at the 2009 meetings, and urge interested students to apply for support next year as well.

Note Added: This article represents the views of the authors, which are not necessarily those of the FHP or APS.