Victor F. Weisskopf

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Victor F. Weisskopf

Victor F. Weisskopf (1908-2002) was the father of Thomas E. Weisskopf and Karen Worth.

Early life

Victor Weisskopf was born in Vienna on September 19, 1908. He studied at the University of Vienna and received a doctorate in physics from the University of Gottingen in Germany in 1931.[1]

Early science

In the 1920s and 1930s, Dr. Weisskopf served at several European research institutions at a time regarded as seminal in the development of nuclear physics. During this period, he studied with and was an assistant to Nobel Prize winners Neils Bohr (whom he called his "intellectual father"), Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and Erwin Schrodinger. In 1937 he went to the United States, where he was to spend much of the rest of his working life, becoming naturalized in 1943.[2]

Soviet sympathies

In the 1930s Weisskopf traveled at least three times to the Soviet Union;

Yes, I had been several times in Russia at that time so I knew the Russian physicists. It was, actually, interesting when I got this Rockefeller Fellowship to go to Copenhagen, the trouble with the fellowship was that I had to wait for about a little more than half a year, maybe eight months, to get the fellowship paid out. And for that time, I decided to go to Soviet Russia. I was certainly not an enthusiastic communist but I was interested because some of my friends said it's wonderful and some of my friends said it was terrible. So I wanted to see with my own eyes and I did have friends in Soviet Russia, indeed people who came from Vienna, whom I could ask, "Could I somehow spend time there, for room and board? I don't need any pay," and indeed I was there for eight months, in Karkov, that is, in the Ukraine near Kiev.

I had a very interesting time, not only because the people there were very interesting physicists (one of them was Lev Landau, the very famous Nobel Prize Russian theoretical physicist). At the same time, I could see what was going on. I traveled in Russia. I certainly saw the bad side of Stalinism. At that time, it certainly wasn't yet so bad as it was later, but it was already visible that things were going the wrong direction. So I had a lot of friends there and therefore, in 1936 when I was sort of looking for a job, I got an offer for a full professorship with very good pay to Kiev. At the same time, when I got this offer of an instructorship with, I must say, a rather low pay (it was $200 a month, which is more than $200 is now but it was still not very much) and it was quite clear to me -- actually I visited Russia later on for a shorter time in 1933 and then in 1936 -- it was quite clear to me that I would not go to Kiev under any condition. I think if I would have accepted it, I'm not sure I would be alive today. And so I decided to go to the States.[3]

Political views

During this period, Weisskpf was interested in communism and socialism.

Well, I don't know what you mean by this. I mean, any thinking person at that time had to be interested, with Nazism in Germany and with the whole turmoil, the threat of a World War, and going from one place to the other, you know Switzerland, England, Denmark, you are sort of bound to be interested in politics. So in some ways, I would say yes I was, but perhaps not more than many others. In particular, I was interested in socialism and communism: is this a solution or not? And I'm actually very glad that I visited Russia for such a long time because I really saw it from within.[4]

Manhattan Project

In 1944 Weisskopf he was invited to join the Manhattan Project which was working to produce the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he was appointed a group leader in the Theoretical Division under Hans Bethe.[5]

Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists

The Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists was formed in 1946 with the primary purpose of raising money for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Federation of American Scientists and other public-education activities of the atomic scientists.[6]

The following were members of the Committee:[6]


In 1945, Weisskopf was among the founders of the Federation of Atomic Sciences (now known as the Federation of American Scientists), formed to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy. In the late 1940s, he was a vocal opponent of the plans of Edward Teller and others to develop the hydrogen bomb. Bethe credited Dr. Weisskopf with dissuading him from joining the project.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

In 1949, Weisskopf was listed as a founding sponsor for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists journal.[7]

Weisskopf was listed, as of May 4, 1971, as on the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.[8]

Scientific career

In 1946 Weisskopf joined the staff of MIT, remaining there for 14 years until 1960, when he obtained leave of absence after being appointed one of the directorate of five to assist the director-general of the Centre Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN). The following year he became director-general himself, a post he held during a period in which CERN's aims were greatly expanded.

After leaving CERN to return to MIT in 1965, Weisskopf returned every year to Geneva to lecture summer students. At MIT he became in 1967 head of the department of physics, a post he held until 1973.

In parallel with his work at MIT Weisskopf was chairman of the high-energy physics advisory panel of the Atomic Energy Commission in the US from 1967 to 1975.[9]

Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign

Circa early 1980s, Victor F. Weisskopf was an endorser of a US-Soviet Nuclear Weapons Freeze petition circulated by the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, National Clearinghouse, based in St. Louis, Missouri.