WU selected as historic physics site

Helen Rhee

The American Physical Society has selected Washington University as a historically significant site to the field of physics. The University is the location where Arthur Holly Compton, former chancellor and professor of physics, did his Nobel Prize-winning research on X-rays. APS has also selected four other universities to be designed as part of the register of historic sites. APS has launched the project just this year to recognize historically significant sites to the field of physics.

On Dec. 12, Chancellor Mark Wrighton will receive the plaque on behalf of the University, presented by John Hopfield, president of the APS. The plaque will be placed inside the Eads Hall main entrance, where the building basement served as the laboratory for Compton when he discovered the X-ray scattering effect.

As a part of the commemoration ceremony, Neal Lane, former director of the National Science Foundation and chief science adviser to President Bill Clinton, will give a keynote speech, entitled “Compton and Science Policy.” Following the address, physics professor Michael Friedlander will discuss “Compton as Chancellor.” John Rigden, adjunct professor of physics, will speak about the significance of Compton’s experiment.

In 1920, Compton began his career at Washington University as the Wayman Crow Professor of Physics in Arts & Sciences and the chair of the physics department. During the ensuing three years, Compton investigated the dual nature of X-ray research, and subsequently received his Nobel Prize in physics.

Friedlander remarked on the significance of Compton’s research in the field of physics. “His x-ray experiments were important steps in stimulating the invention of quantum theory, which took place in Europe during the 1920s,” said Friedlander.

In 1923, Compton transferred to the University of Chicago, where he investigated such topics as cosmic ray physics. During World War II, he served the important role of director of the Metallurgical Laboratory for Atomic Projects. In 1945, he returned to the University and became its ninth chancellor.

“He was a very distinguished scientist. Washington University was fortunate to have him come back as chancellor,” said Friedlander.

Compton received the Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of the X-ray scattering effect. He discovered that an X-ray loses energy when it scatters off an electron. This is also known as the “Compton effect”, which demonstrated behavior similarly between radiation and particles.

The four other places that were selected for inclusion in the APS Register of Historic Sites include Case Western Reserve University, the location o f the Michelson-Morely experiment; the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, to celebrate Benjamin Franklin’s work in electricity; Johns Hopkins University, the site of Henry Rowland’s experiment; and Yale University, to recognize the contribution of J. Willard Gibbs in the development of thermodynamics.

According to Alan Chodos, associate executive officer at the APS, the initial idea to begin the Register of Historical Sites came from Europe, where important sites in science are already being commemorated. He stated that the registry is one of the ways to raise pubic awareness about important historic events, noting that that APS would continue to recognize numerous sites in the upcoming years.

The registry coincides with the 2005 World Year of physics.

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