Biography:John Hasbrouck Van Vleck

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Short description: American physicist and mathematician
John Hasbrouck Van Vleck
JH van Vleck 1974.jpg
John Hasbrouck Van Vleck, 1974
Born(1899-03-13)March 13, 1899
Middletown, Connecticut, US
DiedOctober 27, 1980(1980-10-27) (aged 81)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, US
Alma materUniversity of Wisconsin–Madison
Harvard University
Known forCrystal field theory
Van Vleck paramagnetism
Van Vleck transformations
Van Vleck formula (propagator)
Abigail Pearson (m. 1927)
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Minnesota
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Harvard University
University of Oxford
Balliol College, Oxford
Doctoral advisorEdwin C. Kemble
Doctoral students
Other notable studentsJohn Bardeen[2]

John Hasbrouck Van Vleck (March 13, 1899 – October 27, 1980) was an American physicist and mathematician. He was co-awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977, for his contributions to the understanding of the behavior of electronic magnetism in solids.

Education and early life

Van Vleck was born to mathematician Edward Burr Van Vleck and Hester L. Raymond in Middletown, Connecticut, while his father was an assistant professor at Wesleyan University, and where his grandfather, astronomer John Monroe Van Vleck, was also a professor. He grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and received an A.B. degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1920, before earning his Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1922 under the supervision of Edwin C. Kemble.[3][4]

Career and research

He joined the University of Minnesota as an assistant professor in 1923, then moved to the University of Wisconsin before settling at Harvard. He also earned Honorary D. Sc., or D. Honoris Causa, degree from Wesleyan University in 1936.[5]

J. H. Van Vleck established the fundamentals of the quantum mechanical theory of magnetism, crystal field theory and ligand field theory (chemical bonding in metal complexes). He is regarded as the Father of Modern Magnetism.[6][7][8]

During World War II, J. H. Van Vleck worked on radar at the MIT Radiation Lab. He was half time at the Radiation Lab and half time on the staff at Harvard. He showed that at about 1.25-centimeter wavelength water molecules in the atmosphere would lead to troublesome absorption and that at 0.5-centimeter wavelength there would be a similar absorption by oxygen molecules.[9][10][11][12] This was to have important consequences not just for military (and civil) radar systems but later for the new science of radioastronomy.

Van Vleck (left) receives the Lorentz Medal from Hendrik Brugt Gerhard Casimir at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Amsterdam.

J. H. Van Vleck participated in the Manhattan Project. In June 1942, J. Robert Oppenheimer held a summer study for confirming the concept and feasibility of a nuclear weapon at the University of California, Berkeley. Eight theoretical scientists, including J. H. Van Vleck, attended it. From July to September, the theoretical study group examined and developed the principles of atomic bomb design.[13][14][15]

J. H. Van Vleck's theoretical work led to the establishment of the Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Laboratory. He also served on the Los Alamos Review committee in 1943. The committee, established by General Leslie Groves, also consisted of W. K. Lewis of MIT, Chairman; E. L. Rose, of Jones & Lamson; E. B. Wilson of Harvard; and Richard C. Tolman, Vice Chairman of NDRC. The committee's important contribution (originating with Rose) was a reduction in the size of the firing gun for the Little Boy atomic bomb, a concept that eliminated additional design weight and sped up production of the bomb for its eventual release over Hiroshima. However, it was not employed for the Fat Man bomb at Nagasaki, which relied on implosion of a plutonium shell to reach critical mass.[16][17]

The philosopher and historian of science Thomas Kuhn completed a Ph.D. in physics under Van Vleck's supervision at Harvard.[18]

From 1951, Van Vleck was Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard. He concurrently held the first deanship of Harvard's Division of Engineering and Applied Physics until 1957.[19]

In 1961/62 he was George Eastman Visiting Professor at University of Oxford[20] and held a professorship at Balliol College.[21]

In 1950 he became foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.[22] He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1966[23] and the Lorentz Medal in 1974.[24] For his contributions to the understanding of the behavior of electrons in magnetic solids, Van Vleck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1977, along with Philip W. Anderson and Sir Nevill Mott.[25] Van Vleck transformations, Van Vleck paramagnetism and Van Vleck formula[26] are named after him.

Van Vleck died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, aged 81.[27]

Awards and honors

Van Vleck was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1934,[28] the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1935,[29] and the American Philosophical Society in 1939.[30] He was awarded the Irving Langmuir Award in 1965, the National Medal of Science in 1966 and elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1967.[1] He was awarded the Elliott Cresson Medal in 1971, the Lorentz Medal in 1974 and the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977.

Personal life

J. H. Van Vleck met Abigail Pearson, a student at University of Minnesota, during his professorship there, and married her on June 10, 1927.[5] He and his wife Abigail were also important art collectors, particularly in the medium of Japanese woodblock prints (principally Ukiyo-e), known as Van Vleck Collection. It was inherited from his father Edward Burr Van Vleck. They donated the collection to the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin in 1980s.[31]



  1. 1.0 1.1 Bleaney, B. (1982). "John Hasbrouck Van Vleck. 13 March 1899-27 October 1980". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 28: 627–665. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1982.0024. 
  2. Bardeen, J. (1980). "Reminiscences of Early Days in Solid State Physics". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences 371 (1744): 77–83. doi:10.1098/rspa.1980.0059. ISSN 0080-4630. Bibcode1980RSPSA.371...77B. 
  3. "John H. van Vleck Biographical". 
  4. "NAS Biography of E.B. Van Vleck". 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Miss nobel-id as parameter including the Nobel Lecture, December 8, 1977 Quantum Mechanics The Key to Understanding Magnetism
  6. John H. van Vleck, International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science.
  7. On the verge of Umdeutung in Minnesota: Van Vleck and the correspondence principle. Part One , Anthony Duncan, Michel Janssen; Elsevier Science, 8 May 2007.
  8. On the verge of Umdeutung in Minnesota: Van Vleck and the correspondence principle. Part Two , Anthony Duncan, Michel Janssen; Elsevier Science, 8 May 2007.
  9. Norman F. Ramsey Oral History (1991)[yes|permanent dead link|dead link}}], NORMAN F. RAMSEY: An Interview Conducted by John Bryant, IEEE History Center, 20 June 1991.
  10. Oral History Transcript , Interview with John H. Van Vleck by Katherine Sopka at Lyman Laboratory of Physics, 28 January 1977.
  11. Louis Brown, A radar history of World War II, Institute of Physics Pub., 1999, ISBN:0750306599, pp. 442, 521.
  12. Van Vleck, J.; Weisskopf, V. (1945). "On the Shape of Collision-Broadened Lines". Reviews of Modern Physics 17 (2–3): 227. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.17.227. Bibcode1945RvMP...17..227V. 
  13. New Weapons Laboratory Gives Birth to the "Gadget", 50th Anniversary Article, Los Alamos National Laboratory.
  14. Berkeley Summer Study Group , The Atomic Heritage Foundation.
  15. Atomic History Timeline 1900– 1942 , The Atomic Heritage Foundation.
  16. "Oversight Committee Formed as Lab Begins Research – 50th Anniversary Article, Los Alamos National Laboratory". 
  17. Leslie R. Groves, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army, Retired; Now It Can Be Told, Harper, 1962, pp. 162–63.
  18. Kuhn, Thomas S. (2000). Conant, Jim. ed. The Road Since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993, with an Autobiographical Interview. University of Chicago Press. pp. 242–245. ISBN 9780226457987. 
  19. "Van Vleck Dies at 81". Harvard Crimson. October 28, 1980. 
  20. Nobel Laureates , University of Oxford.
  21. Inspiring minds: the Eastman Professors, Floreat Domus, Balliol College News, Issue 12, June 2006.
  22. "John Hasbrouck van Vleck (1899–1980)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. 
  23. "The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details". National Science Foundation. 
  24. "The Lorentz medal". 
  25. "The Nobel Prize in Physics 1977". 
  26. C.), Gutzwiller, M. C. (Martin (2013-11-27). Chaos in classical and quantum mechanics. New York. ISBN 978-1461209836. OCLC 883391909. 
  27. "John Van Vleck, Nobel Laureate Known for Work on Magnetism; Earned Three Degree". The New York Times: p. A32. October 28, 1980. 
  28. "John Hasbrouck Van Vleck" (in en). 9 February 2023. 
  29. "J. H. Van Vleck". 
  30. "APS Member History". 
  31. E. B. Van Vleck Collection , Chazen Museum of Art

External links

Oral histories

Archival collections

Academic offices
Preceded by
Percy Williams Bridgman
Hollis Chair of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy
Succeeded by
Andrew Gleason