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Maurice Goldhaber

May 30, 2011

1911 was the year of the first Solvay Conference, a conference that brought together such illustrious quantum mechanics as Albert Einstein, Maurice de Broglie, Hendrik Lorentz, Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford and Arnold Sommerfeld. It was also the year that another subatomic physics luminary, Maurice Goldhaber, was born. Goldhaber died on May 11, 2011, at age 100.[1-5]

Participants of the 1911 Solvay Conference

Participants of the 1911 Solvay Conference.

Seated, Henri Poincaré. Standing (left to right), Rutherford, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes and Einstein.

Maurice Goldhaber was born in the same year as this conference.

(Via Wikimedia Commons)

Maurice Goldhaber was born on April 18, 1911, in Austria, and he was a graduate student at the University of Berlin in the 1930s[4] when he decided that Nazism would be detrimental to his health.[3] He emigrated to England and Cambridge University, where he collaborated with James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron in 1932, on an experiment to measure its mass.[1] This was an essential early subatomic physics experiment, since it was thought at the time that the neutron was just a combination of a proton and an electron.

Goldhaber's approach to a neutron mass experiment was to use radiation to dissociate deuterons to protons and neutrons.[1] The experiment showed that neutrons were not composite particles, but distinct elementary particles.[1,4] Goldhaber and Chadwick also demonstrated the fission of light nuclei by slow neutrons. Goldhaber discovered that beryllium acts as a neutron moderator, reducing their kinetic energy to allow such reactions.[1] In this way, they produced tritium (3H) from lithium-6 (6Li)[1]

In 1936, Goldhaber received a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge, and he emigrated to the United States two years later, joining the University of Illinois faculty[4] and becoming a naturalized citizen in 1944.[1] In order to secure work for his wife, Gertrude Scharff-Goldhaber, Goldhaber accepted a position as a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1950.[3,4].

Gertrude Scharff-Goldhaber, like her husband, was a nuclear scientist. Shortly after they were married, the Goldhabers had shown that beta particles were electrons. Maurice Goldhaber eventually served as director of Brookhaven from 1961 to 1973.[2] He retired from Brookhaven is 1985, and he was named Distinguished Scientist Emeritus. Goldhaber was active in research at Brookhaven well into his 90s.[5]

One significant, and quite long-term, experiment he conducted with L. Grodzins and A. W. Sunyar at Brookhaven was on the parity violation of weak interactions.[1] Their experiment, which looked at neutrino-producing transmutations, showed that the neutrino helicity, the projection of the spin onto the direction of the momentum, is always counterclockwise.[2,3]

Maurice Goldhaber in 1937

Maurice Goldhaber in 1937.

(Via Wikimedia Commons)

The most often told story about Goldhaber is his bet with the theoretical physicist, Hartland Snyder. At a dinner party in Hartland's house in 1954, Snyder bet Goldhaber $500 that the antiproton exists. Goldhaber, who didn't think the antiproton to be possible, accepted the bet. This was a substantial bet, since it's about $4,000 in today's money. The antiproton was discovered just a year later, and Goldhaber paid off the bet. [1,2]

Goldhaber had an active mind. As recalled by Martin Blume, who was editor-in-chief of the Physical Review and Physical Review Letters at Brookhaven and carpooled with Goldhaber from 2000-2008, "“He had an idea a minute... I had a hard time keeping Maurice quiet... Sometimes I had to put my hand across his face to stop him from talking."[2] In a Brookhaven statement, Peter Bond recalled that Goldhaber once said that "Physics teaches old things to new people."[4]

Goldhaber served as the 1982 president of the American Physical Society. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Physical Society.[5] He was awarded the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize (1982), the National Medal of Science (1983) and the Enrico Fermi Award (1999).[5]


  1. Thomas H. Maugh II, "Maurice Goldhaber dies at 100; noted nuclear and particle physicist," Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2011.
  2. Kenneth Chang, "Maurice Goldhaber, Atomic Physicist, Is Dead at 100," The New York Times, May 17, 2011.
  3. Martin Weil, "Maurice Goldhaber, scientist who showed particle to be 'left-handed,' dies at 100," Washington Post, May 21, 2011.
  4. Echo Romeo, "Maurice Goldhaber: A lifetime of physics," Buzz Blog-Physics Central, May 23, 2011.
  5. Liz Seubert, "In Memoriam: Maurice Goldhaber, Former Brookhaven National Laboratory Director," Brookhaven National Laboratory, May 13, 2011.
  6. M. Goldhaber, L. Grodzins and A. W. Sunyar, "Helicity of Neutrinos," Physical Review, vol. 109, no. 3 (February, 1958), pp. 1015-1017.

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