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Victor F. Weisskopf

Institute Professor Emeritus Victor F. Weisskopf died Sunday night at his home in Newton, Massachusetts. He was 93.

Weisskopf, known as Viki to friends, was regarded as a “giant of twentieth century physics,” according to Professor Robert L. Jaffe, director of the Center for Theoretical Physics. Jaffe also described him as “one of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered.” Weisskopf was born in Vienna in 1908 to Emil and Martha Weisskopf and earned his PhD at Gottingen University in 1931 working with Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. In 1937 he came to the University of Rochester and later MIT. In 1943 he joined the Manhattan Project, the U.S. initiative to develop an atomic bomb. He would later say that this was “a shadow over my life,” and he became active in arms control issues. In 1944 he and others founded the Federation of Atomic Scientists to promote peaceful use of atomic energy and warn of the dangers of nuclear war. He returned to MIT in 1945 to head the theoretical division of Laboratory of Nuclear Science, which later became the Center for Theoretical Physics.

From 1961 to 1965, Weisskopf was head of the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). He returned again to MIT in 1966 and was named an Institute Professor. Professor John W. Negele said he had “a big impact on science sociology” and on “getting people to work together” during his time at CERN.

Weisskopf formally retired in 1974, but continued working well after that. In the mid-1970s, Jaffe was working on the problem of quark confinement, or why bare quarks are not seen in nature. Jaffe and his collaborators “found Viki to be an extremely helpful audience for our ideas ... [forcing] us to give physical arguments for everything.” He became, reluctantly, a co-author on their paper, but worried that he was “overshadowing young people.” In typical self-deprecating style, Weisskopf said he contributed to the “don’t know-how” of the paper.

Weisskopf was known for a sense of the beauty of physics, and once compared the Big Bang model to a Haydn concerto. “That was Viki in his rhapsodic mode,” Jaffe said. He also cared about MIT’s students. Negele explained that Weisskopf would give “warm-up lectures,” before colloquia to help give graduate students background for the main presentation. And when others were afraid to ask a basic question during a talk, “Viki would ask it,” Negele said.

Weisskopf received numerous honorary degrees, including the National Medal of Science in 1980 and the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1981. In 1975 Pope Paul VI appointed him to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

His research covered some of the most basic issues in theoretical physics, such as a then-heroic calculation of the electron self-energy. “He helped invent [quantum] field theory,” a staple of high-energy physics, said Professor Jeffrey Goldstone of physics.

He is survived by his wife, Duschka Schmid, a daughter, Karen Worth, a son, Thomas, and five grandchildren. He will be buried at the family’s summer home in Paris.