Anderson, Herbert Lawrence.

Alternative names
Birth 1914-05-24
Death 1988-07-16

Biographical notes:

Anderson, 1914-1988. Physicist.

From the description of Oral history interview with Herbert Anderson, 1981 January 13 and 16. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 81567026

Herbert L. Anderson was born in New York City on May 24th, 1914. By 1940, Anderson had earned an A.B. degree, a B.S. in electrical engineering, and a Ph.D. in physics, all from Columbia University. He also had helped to build Columbia’s first cyclotron and, with that same machine, and under the direction of Nobel Prize Winner Enrico Fermi, he confirmed the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939. That was the first collaboration with the distinguished Italian professor and the beginning of a very close personal and professional relationship that, among other greatly important experiments and results, produced the first self-sustaining chain reaction of human history.

Anderson participated in the Manhattan Project from beginning to end. After producing the first chain reaction, the physicist was given the task of directing the construction of two new reactor piles. The first one, CP2, was to be built in the same place were the original pile had hosted the first reaction. The second, CP3, was built in Batavia, Illinois, where Argonne Laboratory was being constructed. After that, Anderson became the main consultant for DuPont while the corporation was building the Hanover reactors. In 1944, Anderson went to Los Alamos, where he played a leading role in his research group and participated in all the tests leading to the production of nuclear energy and the atom bomb.

After WWII, Anderson returned to the University of Chicago where he worked until he left for Los Alamos again in 1978. Herb, as he was known among the university community, was assistant professor of physics (1946-47), associate professor (1947-50), professor (1950-77), and distinguished service professor (1977-82). He directed the Enrico Fermi Institute from 1958 to 1962. He was appointed a Guggenheim fellow (1955-57) and a Fulbright lecturer in Italy (1956-57). He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1960, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978, and was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award for 1982.

In a biographical memoir written by Harold M Agnew, fellow physicist and colleague at Los Alamos, the author remarks: “Anderson’s further work at the cyclotron dealt with rare modes of the π and μ decay. This helped establish the form of the weak interaction. His study of μ capture and μ mesic atoms turned out to be a very fruitful field of research, which he pursued with his students and a group of Canadian physicists for more than ten years. These experiments gave highly precise measurements of the size and shape of the distribution of electric charge in nuclei. They also provided a searching experimental test of vacuum polarization and the theory of quantum electrodynamics as it applied to muonic atoms”.

Anderson became one of the capital names in the foundations of nuclear physics as well as a respected administrative authority in the university. He helped building accelerators in Brazil and in Italy and consulted frequently for the private sector. Anderson, who was an excellent organizer of people, kept a fruitful and productive relation with many participants of the Manhattan Project, and so he also participated indirectly in the construction of the first computer hardware and software.

In the last part of his career Anderson worked with biologist Theodore Puck in developing instrumentation to analyze the proteins made by living cells. In this project he designed a protein analyzer to measure the separated proteins by direct β-ray counting. Anderson was also the sponsor of many successful careers in Physics.

The physicist’s physicist, as some close friends called Anderson, always declared a vast admiration for Fermi, whom he considered his most valuable teacher. That admiration crystallized in the publication Fermi’s complete works with Anderson as editor.

Anderson died of Berylliosis at the age of 74 in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

From the guide to the Anderson, Herbert L. Papers, 1911-1988, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)


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  • Cyclotrons--Design and construction
  • Physics--Study and teaching
  • Mesons
  • Nuclear fission--History


  • Physicists--Interviews


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