Oak Ridge National Laboratory

 

News Release

Media Contact: Ron Walli (wallira@ornl.gov)
Communications and External Relations
865.576.0226

 

Auditorium at ORNL renamed to honor Eugene P. Wigner

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Jan. 11, 1996 — Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Central Auditorium has been renamed the Eugene P. Wigner Auditorium to pay tribute to the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist and mathematician who spent part of his career in Oak Ridge.

Wigner, who died Jan. 1, 1995, came to Oak Ridge in 1946 as director of research of Clinton Laboratories. While at Clinton Laboratories, which became ORNL, Wigner played a major role in the design of the graphite reactor. Even before the war ended, he envisioned a greatly enlarged laboratory dedicated to developing a new energy source.

Wigner won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for his work in the fundamental mathematics and physics of quantum mechanics. The prize recognized research Wigner, a native of Hungary, had done in the late 1920s while at the Techische Hochschule in Berlin. Wigner, who emigrated to the United States in 1930, applied and extended the mathematical theory of groups to the quantum world of the atom, using group theory to organize the quantum energy levels of electrons in atoms. This method is now standard.

With his mathematical approach to the atom, Wigner became one of the first to grasp the implications of symmetry, which has since emerged as one of the key principles of theoretical physics.

It was Wigner who, with the help of Leo Szilard, in 1939 helped persuade Albert Einstein to write the now famous letter to President Roosevelt about the potential to produce vast amounts of energy by splitting atoms of uranium. This letter helped initiate the uranium project on fission research and enabled the United States to develop an atomic weapon ahead of the Germans.

Under Wigner's leadership, 1946 saw the beginning of the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology, the start of the new style of big biology under Alex Hollaender, the greatly expanded work in materials science and the first production of an isotope for treatment of cancer. The same year marked the introduction of the postwar generation of nuclear reactors. Wigner laid out the conceptual design of the first plate-type water research reactor, a forerunner to the High Flux Isotope Reactor at ORNL.

Wigner left Oak Ridge in 1947; however, he returned in 1953 and spent six months on Project HOPE, an attempt to design a radiochemical plant that would economically reprocess spent fuel elements. Project HOPE was never built; however, colleagues noted Wigner's uncanny ability to grasp detailed chemical engineering principles that went into the design. Wigner came back to ORNL in 1965 to serve as director of the lab's Civil Defense project. Afterward, he was a frequent visitor to the lab until declining health prevented him from traveling.

The auditorium, located in Building 4500 North, at the east end of the plant, was formally dedicated in a ceremony Thursday (Jan. 11).

ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram research facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.