He was one of a generation of physicists of the 1920s who remade the world of physics. It was a collection of people from Berlin to London to Zürich to Pisa, though not quite yet to New York or Chicago. The first physicists in this new generation --Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and Paul Dirac, to name three - -created quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics was a dazzling new world, which threw open dozens of fundamental physical questions. A new set of men (and a few women) came along behind them, to answer the first questions and pose others, often more complex.
Wigner was in this second set of physicists. He posed and answered some of the most profound questions of 20th-century physics. He laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics. In the late 1930s, he extended his research into atomic nuclei.
Between 1939 and 1945, this generation of physicists helped to remake the world again. This time it was a far greater, more public world they remade: one of armies, peoples, ideologies. They did it first by seeing that an atomic bomb could be built; and then by arguing that it must be built, in the United States, immediately; and finally by playing the crucial role in getting the bomb built, under terrible pressure.
Wigner was a giant of atomic bomb production as well.
Wigner was one of a group of renowned Jewish-Hungarian scientists and mathematicians from turn-of-the-century Budapest, including Paul Erdos, Edward Teller, John von Neumann, and Leo Szilard. Szilard was probably Wigner's best adult friend. Von Neumann was a schoolmate and mentor. Wigner was the only one of the four to win a Nobel Prize.
Wigner was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (now Hungary), into a world where middle-class people had no automobiles, radio, gas or electricity -- and did not miss those things. That fact startled and pleased him as an old man.
In 1902, the great scientists of the world were also content without atomic theory, quantum theory, or relativity theory. Yet many of the best scientists felt that all the fundamental things of life had already been discovered -- all that remained was to fill in around the edges of the existing scheme.
At age 11, Eugene had a brush with tuberculosis, and for six weeks was kept at a sanatarium in the Austrian mountains with his mother. But his childhood was mostly happy. His parents were well-matched and he loved his two sisters intensely. His family culture was serious and stable, with a typical Hungarian love of jokes. He loved to walk as a boy.
In the Lutheran Gymnasium he attended, he had the privilege of learning mathematics from Laszlo Ratz, a devoted scholar and teacher who also tutored von Neumann. In 1921, after graduating from the Gymnasium, he studied at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin (today the Technische Universität Berlin).
Even more important, he attended the Wednesday afternoon colloquia of the German Physical Society. These colloquia featured such luminaries as Max Planck, Max von Laue, Rudolf Ladenburg, Werner Heisenberg, Walther Nernst, Wolfgang Pauli and -- most of all -- Albert Einstein.
Wigner also met Leo Szilard at the colloquium. Szilard became at once Wigner's closest friend, and a man who remained an enigma and, sometimes, an irritant.
A third experience in Berlin was formative. Wigner worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute [which one? -there were several], and there met Michael Polanyi, who would become, after Laszlo Ratz, Wigner's greatest teacher.
In the late 1920s, Wigner explored deeply in the field of quantum mechanics, then being shaped by Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Dirac, to the mild disapproval of Einstein. A period at Göttingen as an assistant to the great mathematician David Hilbert proved a disappointment, as Hilbert was no longer intellectually active. But Wigner spent many, many hours in the library at Göttingen, and devoted himself to physics. Wigner laid the foundation for the theory of symmetries in quantum mechanics. In the late 1930s, he extended his research into atomic nuclei. He developed an important general theory of nuclear reactions. He was brilliant as a theorist (see for instance the Wigner-Eckart theorem), brilliant in the laboratory, and had a deep understanding of engineering as well.
By 1929, his papers were drawing wide notice in the physics world.
In 1930, Princeton University recruited Wigner and Von Neumann. When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Wigner and von Neumann found safe haven in Princeton, New Jersey, though they still spent half the year in Europe, traveling, studying and teaching. A more peaceful, modest man you could not find, but Wigner was deeply affronted by Hitler and saw immediately how dangerous he was. In later life, when people thanked him for being so perceptive, he always protested that it took no special perception at all to see Hitler's danger and evil; rather, he felt it took a special perception not to see it.
In Princeton in 1934 Wigner introduced his sister Manci to the physicist Paul Dirac. They married, and the ties between Wigner and Dirac deepened. Wigner also spent time with Einstein, who had come to Princeton to join the Institute For Advanced Study.
In 1936, Princeton did not rehire Wigner, and he moved to the University of Wisconsin. There he met his first wife, a lovely physicst student named Amelia Frank. But Ms. Frank died in 1937, and Wigner, in his grief, wanted to leave Madison. Princeton had done a careful search for a superb young physicist, and the name they kept hearing from people was... Eugene Wigner. They invited him back and he accepted. He rejoined the Princeton faculty in the fall of 1938.
Though a professed political amateur, in 1939 and 1940, Dr. Wigner played a major role in agitating for a Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb to defend the world against Hitler. Wigner was sorry to see atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nevertheless, he remained a stolid defender of the U.S. military, a patriot in his adopted country. Dr. Wigner always thought of his work on the atomic bomb as essentially defensive, and he would later become a major figure in the field of civil defense.
In 1946, Wigner accepted a job as director of research and development at Clinton Laboratory (now Oak Ridge National Laboratory) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Not an administrator by background or temperament, Wigner left after a year and returned to teaching and research at Princeton University.
In the 1950s, he grieved the deaths of Enrico Fermi, Einstein and Von Neumann. In 1954, he was troubled by the infamous case in which Julius Robert Oppenheimer lost his security clearance. A major witness against Oppenheimer was Wigner's old friend, Edward Teller.
In 1960, already known as one of deep thinkers in the field of mathematical physics, Wigner gave a thought-provoking insight into the power of mathematics in his best-known essay outside physics, now a classic paper, "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences", in which he argued that biology and cognition could be the origin of physical concepts, as we humans perceive them, and that the happy coincidence that mathematics and physics were so well matched, seemed to be "unreasonable" and hard to explain.
In 1963, Wigner received the Nobel Prize in Physics. He professed never to have even considered the possibility that this might occur, and added: "I never expected to get my name in the newspapers without doing something wicked."
Wigner was famous for his gentleness and elaborate courtesy to others. Once as a young man, he was lying on the lawn near the municipal swimming pool at Göttingen with a German astronomer named Heckman. Heckman observed a line of ants crawling across Wigner's right leg and biting him.
Heckman asked Wigner why he didn't kill the ants. "Because I don't know which are the ones biting me," Wigner replied.
In scientific meetings, both formal and informal, when someone proposed something, Wigner often answered simply "I don't understand." He was never pretentious, never afraid to seem foolish.
For a man of science, Wigner was oddly superstitious, hating to have 13 bills in his pocket, anxious to knock on a real piece of wood when he heard some good news.
In 1992, at the age of 90, he published a fine memoir, The Recollections of Eugene P. Wigner (assisted by Andrew Szanton). Wigner died three years later in Princeton.
Near the end of his life his thought turned more philosophical. In his memoir, Wigner said: "The full meaning of life, the collective meaning of all human desires, is fundamentally a mystery beyond our grasp. As a young man, I chafed at this state of affairs. But by now I have made peace with it. I even feel a certain honor to be associated with such a mystery."