Careers & Advancement

Obituary of Arthur Robert von Hippel—Physik Journal (translated from German)

Professor Arthur Robert von Hippel died 105 years old on December 31, 2003 at dawn near Boston, Massachusetts , USA . The last witness of the unique blossoming season of modern physics at the University of Göttingen in the years after the First World War, was born in Rostock in 1898 and came from a prominent East Prussian family.

von Hippel studied physics in Göttingen, where Born, Franck, Pohl, Courant and Hilbert were teaching– to name only a few of the many celebrities. He took the Doctor degree in 1924 “summa cum laude” at the University of Göttingen with his thesis “Thermo-microphones” carried out at the Institute for Applied Electricity, whose Director, Professor Max Reich, was the thesis supervisor. The other doctorate examiners were Max Born and Gustav Tammann. The thesis showed already von Hippel's unusual talents and capabilities as a theorist and experimentalist. What followed were a fruitful research and faculty appointments in Jena and Göttingen.

After the sudden, tragic death of his first wife he married in 1930 Dagmar Franck, daughter of the Nobel Laureate James Franck. The political situation forced him to leave Germany in 1933: justice and freedom - the principles to which he had always been faithful, already as a young man – were no more effective there. His father-in-law had to emigrate in consequence of the race laws and a great danger existed also for him, his wife and their first two children.

After a stay at the Niels-Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, von Hippel began a new life in the USA with a professorship for Electrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge , Massachusetts . He founded in 1936 at MIT the Laboratory for Insulation Research (LIR) and in 1942 became an American citizen. The research at the LIR aimed from the outset – in close cooperation with the MIT Radiation Laboratory – at investigating, measuring, developing and manufacturing dielectric materials, which were essential for the production of radar equipment. In recognition of his contributions during the Second World War he was awarded in 1948 the “Presidential Certificate of Merit,” the second-highest American civilian decoration.

After 1945, as a result of the resumption of scientific exchanges with the USA , foreign researchers got to know about the successes of the pioneering activity at the LIR. Especially worth mentioning is the discovery of the ferroelectricity of barium-titanate. This was one of the many results of the investigations of the fundamental properties of dielectrics, including polarization phenomena, and piezo- and ferroelectricity that had major impacts on the progress of theory and applications. The fame of von Hippel attracted physicists, chemists, engineers, who came to his interdisciplinary Laboratory from many countries with fellowships and often became permanent co-workers. At the LIR and around him lived further the best traditions and characteristics of the Göttingen school.

During the fifties and the sixties, von Hippel developed the revolutionary concept of the “Molecular Design of Materials and Devices” – or simply “Molecular Engineering.” This concept is based upon the fundamental understanding of the molecular structure and properties of materials, in order to develop new materials with desired pre-established properties.

His four books published between 1954 and 1965, together with the publications of the LIR, including about 90 are papers by him, make up a rich source of information on materials science, which is still of great value.

In recognition of his outstanding activity, the American Materials Research Society established the “von Hippel Award” as its highest prize awarded every year to a scientist who contributed in a decisive way to the progress of the materials science. Arthur von Hippel was the first prize winner in 1976.1

Arthur von Hippel was a great researcher, a great teacher and – what perhaps is even more important – a great man. During his lectures to MIT graduate students he conveyed the essential of the physical processes considered, and the transition from the mathematical formulation to the physical interpretation. In the Seventies, the last years of his teaching after retirement in 1964, he gave a course “From Atoms Toward Living Systems”, which is evidence of the 81 year old scientist's still sharp vision into the future.2

To study with such an eminent teacher was an experience that made one content and happy. He was teacher and educator at the same time – his favourite sentence was “Don't be intimidated!” He was a generous, always helpful mentor, with the typical wide, deep education and culture of the German university professor of the “good, old days.” His keen interest covered classical and modern literature, art and history. He loved the nature and the mountains; a walking-tour with him was an instructive, wonderful experience.

Arthur von Hippel leaves behind one daughter (Maianna) and four sons (Peter, Frank and Eric, all three university professors, and Arndt, medical doctor and publisher) as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His surviving students from all countries of the world commemorate him with deep gratitude and admiration.

Maurizio Vallauri

1 A detailed overview of life and work of Arthur von Hippel is given by a high-illustrated Festschrift in his honour (Special volume of the journal “Ferroelectrics”, 132, 1992) and also by a special issue of the IEEE Transactions on Electrical Insulation (Vol. 23, October 1988) with the list of all LIR publications.

2That is also the title of his last paper printed in Mat. Res. Bull. 14 , 273 (1979).