Abraham Pais was not only a renowned theoretical physicist in his younger years, but later in his career, he became a chronicler of theoretical physics, and of the personalities involved in theoretical physics during his life time.
Pais was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. His parents were both school teachers. His father, Isaiah Pais, was a Sephardic Jew, whose ancestors had escaped from Portugal in the 17th century and had settled in Amsterdam. His mother, Kaatje van Kleeff, was the daughter of an Ashkanazi diamond cutter.
Following the completion of his high school years, Pais entered the University of Amsterdam, and earned a B. S. degree in physics and mathematics in 1938. He had become interested in research in physics and had befriended the famous theoretical physicist George Uhlenbeck at the University of Utrecht. And as a result, Pais was able to do his graduate work in theoretical physics, working with Uhlenbeck. Pais earned his M. S. degree in theoretical physics in 1940, and a year later, in 1941, Pais completed his doctoral dissertation, and was awarded the Ph. D. degree in physics by the University of Utrecht. His major doctoral advisors were George Uhlenbeck, who in 1941 was already in the U. S. A., and Leon Rosenfeld. His doctoral degree was the last doctoral degree granted to a Jewish person before the Nazis prohibited the granting of any university degree to a Jewish person.
Early in 1943, Pais, together with all remaining Jews in the country, who had not yet been sent to concentration camps, was ordered to report for his deportation to a concentration camp. He was able to find a hiding place through his university friend, Tina Buchter Strobos. As a fugitive he had to move nine times to different hiding places, in order to stay one step ahead of the pursuing Gestapo. In March 1945, his luck ran out, and he was found in one of his hiding places by the Gestapo. Fortunately for him, the rail and road connections to the German concentration camps were severed by the allies, who had by then already cut off any connection between Amsterdam and Germany. He was interrogated for a month by the Gestapo, but then let go one month prior to war’s end. The last person who had provided him with shelter, however, was not that fortunate, he was executed by the Nazi occupiers.
Following the Second World War, in 1946, Pais was able to return to his chosen field, research in theoretical physics. He was able to become a fellow at the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, Denmark, working with Neils Bohr. He remained there for a year, when he received an invitation, in 1947, from Robert Oppenheimer, to join the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University as a fellow. After four years, in 1951, Pais was appointed to a professorship, and became a colleague of Albert Einstein, who then also was at Princeton. Pais was the third individual to be named to a professorship at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. The two others, who preceded him with professorial appointments, were Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. Pais remained at Princeton until 1963, when he took a professorial position at Rockefeller University in New York City. He remained at Rockefeller University until his retirement in 1988 as the Detlov W. Bronk Professor Emeritus. During his time at Rockefeller University, in 1978, he switched his academic and research interests in theoretical physics over to the history of theoretical physics, and became a prolific chronicler of that field, publishing several highly regarded books.
Pais’s interests and contributions to the field of theoretical physics are substantial. He is viewed as one of the co-founders of particle physics, and most of his research and contributions are in the field of particle physics. Pais and his colleague, Murray Gell-Mann, contributed to two major breakthroughs in their field of study. The first breakthrough was the idea of Associated Production, which explains the puzzling properties of strange particles. The second breakthrough was the theory regarding the composition of the long-lived Kaon [K sub L]. This theory challenged the classical notion of a particle, a notion that was later proven to be correct.
A person’s prominence can best be measured by the number and type of awards that are bestowed upon that individual. Pais received several. Among them are the ones listed below.
The Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize, in 1976;
The Physics Prize of the Dutch Physical Society in 1992;
Officer in the Order of Oranje Nassau, bestowed on him by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, also in 1992;
Medal of Science of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, in 1993;
The Gemant Award of the American Physical Society, in 1994; and
The Lewis Thomas Prize, bestowed on him by Rockefeller University.
As noted before, Pais was a prolific author of books on the history of science and especially of theoretical physics, and the people associated with theoretical physics. Among others, he authored the books listed below.
“Inward Bound: Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World”, published by Oxford Press in 1986;
“Subtle is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein”, published by Oxford University Press, in 1982;
“A Tale of Two Continents: a Physicist’s Life in a Turbulent World”, published by Princeton University Press, in 1997;
“The Genius of Science- A Portrait Gallery”, published in 2000;
“J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life”, published by Oxford University Press, in 2006 [posthumously]; and
“A Tale of Two Continents”, published by Princeton University Press, in 1997.
Abraham Pais was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on May 19, 1918. He married Lila Atwill in 1956. Unfortunately because of Lila’s mental health problems, the couple decided to divorce in 1961. During his first marriage, Pais’s only child, a son, was born. His name is Joshua, and he was born in 1958. From 1976 to 1985, Pais was married to a Princeton University professor in French languages, named Sara. Little is known about his second marriage. His third marriage, in 1990, was to Ida Nicolaisen, a Danish professor at the University of Copenhagen. This marriage, he claims, was his happiest one. Pais also had a grandson, named Zane Abraham, born in 1990, and a stepson named Daniel.
Pais became a U. S. citizen in 1954. Following his retirement, he remained fairly active and with his wife Ida, would spend the summers in Denmark. He passed away at the age of 82 from a heart attack, on July 28, 2000 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Abraham “Bram” Pais, Physics Today Online
Abraham Pais, Wikipedia
E-BOOKS AVAILABLE FROM AMAZON; GOOGLE: Kindle Store Pegels
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THE SECOND WORLD WAR IN THE NETHERLANDS: MEMOIRS, 2017
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