University of Texas
Roman Smoluchowski
August 31, 1910–January 12, 1996



Roman Smoluchowski


In Memoriam

Roman Smoluchowski, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy, died in Austin on January 12, 1996. He is survived by Louise, his wife of 44 years, two children and two grandchildren. Roman, or Ro as he was affectionately called by his many friends, was born in Zakopane, Poland (then Austria-Hungary) on August 31, 1910. He received his master's degree in physics from the University of Warsaw in 1933 and his PhD in physics and mathematics from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands in 1935. He then worked for a year at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton where, with fellow European postdoctoral fellow Louis Bouckaert and future Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner, he wrote the seminal paper applying group theory to solid state physics.

Roman returned to Poland in 1936 as head of the department of physics of metals at the University of Warsaw. During the early days of the German occupation he escaped from Poland. An invitation from Princeton University to become an instructor in physics enabled him to come to the U.S., where he became a citizen in 1944. From 1941 to 1945, Roman was a research physicist at the General Electric Laboratory in Schenectady, New York. From 1946 to 1950, he was an associate professor of physics and metallurgy and from 1950 to 1960, professor of physics at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. Then from 1960 to 1978 he was professor of solid state sciences in the mechanical engineering department, and until 1976, head of the solid state and materials interdepartmental program at Princeton University. He retired from Princeton as emeritus professor in 1978 and became professor of physics and astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin, where he continued his active program of research and teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

During his scholarly career, Roman made important contributions to a number of areas: the role played by structural defects in the properties of solids, magnetism and order-disorder transformations in metals and alloys, the mechanisms of radiation damage, the formation mechanisms and stability of point defects in the alkali halides, the application of solid-state physics to the properties of biological hard tissue and materials problems in astrophysics. He applied his knowledge of radiation damage phenomena to the structural nature of the lunar surface prior to the lunar landings during the Apollo missions. He also turned his attention to problems in solid-state astrophysics, including the gravitational collapse and the resulting interior structure and magnetic field of Jupiter and the outer planets. This work is now being tested with data from the Galileo spacecraft and its atmospheric probe. He made important contributions to our understanding of the rings around Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune. In 1991 the International Astronomical Society in honor of Roman's 80th birthday named asteroid number 4530 after him.

Roman published nearly 300 refereed papers, two advanced books, and wrote numerous contributions to popular science books, magazines, and encyclopedias. His popular book, The Solar System: The Sun, Planets, and Life, written for the Scientific American Library in 1983, has been published in at least five languages. Roman served on or chaired many panels, committees, or boards for the ONR, NRC, and NAS. In April 1944, Roman wrote a letter to the secretary of the American Physical Society requesting the formation within the society of a "Division of Metal Physics." Opposition immediately surfaced from two camps: those who wanted the Division to include all solids, to whom Roman wisely, if somewhat reluctantly, acceded and those who opposed the fragmentation of physics and who found the inclusion of a large number of industrial physicists in the society distasteful. It took three years, but at last in June 1947 the Division of Solid State Physics (now Condensed Matter Physics) was recognized by the APS with Ro as its first chairman. Without Ro's efforts, condensed-matter physics might well have fragmented into many sub-fields, some of which would have been lost to physics, becoming part of engineering or chemistry.

Roman was always willing to give of his time and share his insights with students and colleagues. In the early 1960s, when several Brazilian universities were establishing modern research activities in materials science, Roman invited several physicists from Brazil to join his research activities in the U.S. and also visited their home universities. His kindness to friends and strangers alike will not be forgotten. After a talk given by a young scientist, Roman, even if he had no questions or scientific comments to make, would introduce himself and say how much he enjoyed the talk. Roman's warm and generous personality, his scientific contributions, and his infectious booming laugh will long be remembered by those who knew him.

This Memorial Resolution was prepared by a special committee consisting of Professors Leonard Kleinman (Chair), Frits de Wette, and William D. Cochran.

Roman Smoluchowski, Physicist, Is Dead at 85
Published: February 2, 1996
New York Times

Roman Smoluchowski, a physicist who studied structures as small as atoms and as large as planets, died on Jan. 12, 1996 in Austin, Tex., where he was an emeritus professor at the University of Texas. He was 85.

As a professor of solid-state physics, first at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and then at Princeton University, Dr. Smoluchowski concentrated on understanding the structure of atoms, metals and crystal lattices. But late in his career at Princeton, and then, after 1978, at Texas, he changed his focus to much larger structures, notably planets and other celestial objects like dust rings.

“The switch was not so surprising,” said William Cochran, a research scientist at the McDonald Observatory of the University of Texas who knew Dr. Smoluchowski at Princeton as well.

"As a solid-state physicist, he was trying to understand how different materials interact on a microscopic scale," Dr. Cochran said. "He realized that a lot of the applications of this were in the field of astrophysics."

In studying the interior structure of a large planet like Jupiter, for example, "What you have to worry about is how atoms and molecules interact under conditions of high temperature and pressure," Dr. Cochran said.

Dr. Smoluchowski was born in Zakopane, Austria-Hungary, and received a master's degree from the University of Warsaw in 1933 and a doctorate from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, in 1935. He was a research associate at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1935 and 1936.

“His father was a physicist in Europe and had known Albert Einstein quite well,” said Dr. Smoluchowski's wife, Louise. So, when the younger physicist showed up at Princeton, he called on the great man.

"He was very nervous, but,” his mother said, “he must introduce himself,” Mrs. Smoluchowski recalled yesterday. "Einstein said, 'Come on, sit down and tell me what you think of quantum mechanics.' Roman was nonplussed."

Dr. Smoluchowski was teaching in Warsaw in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, and escaped with the help of two members of the Jewish underground, his wife said. Princeton offered him a position, enabling him to come to the United States. Later, he did war research at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y.
Dr. Smoluchowski published more than 300 scholarly articles and served on advisory boards for the Department of Defense and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He was involved in studying the structure of the moon's surface during the Apollo lunar missions.

Besides his wife, he is survived by a son, Peter, of Minneapolis; a daughter, Irena, of Florence, Mass.; and two granddaughters.

Founding of Condensed Matter Physics

Roman's far reaching influence for his field is chronicled in a Physics Today article entitled, When Condensed-matter Physics Became King by Joseph Martin. (Physics Today 72, 1, 30 (2019)

"The needs of industrial physicists were nevertheless on the mind of Polish émigré and General Electric (GE) physicist Roman Smoluchowski (see figure 3) when he spearheaded a different proposal for a division of metals physics. Most industrial research, he reasoned, concerned metals—they suffused his day-to-day responsibilities at GE, where he often collaborated with metallurgists. A division of metals physics would offer a home to industrial researchers and also represent academic physicists interested in topics such as magnetism, electricity, and thermal conductivity. figure Figure 3. Roman Smoluchowski, an advocate for a metals division of the American Physical Society, works with alloy samples at General Electric. (AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, courtesy of Roman Smoluchowski.) PPT|High-resolution '

"But the APS council demurred when presented with Smoluchowski’s proposal, which it judged as too transparently industrial. APS secretary Karl Darrow suggested that the solid state of matter—encompassing metals, other regular solids, and amorphous solids—might offer a better basis for a successful division. Smoluchowski, although initially concerned that a division of solid-state physics would have a more difficult time attracting interest from metallurgists, proved willing to compromise. Through that delicate sequence of contingencies, solid-state physics became a recognized subdiscipline of physics when the DSSP was approved in 1947. '

"As it is taught today, solid-state physics centers on quantum approaches to regular crystalline solids. Smoluchowski and his collaborators envisioned a significantly broader field, and they convened a January 1945 APS symposium to discuss the proposal for a new division and showcase both its experimental and theoretical scopes. The theorists on the program emphasized the links between the solid state and the latest developments in statistical and quantum physics. Wannier outlined new applications of statistical methods to cooperative phenomena, in which component parts can’t be considered as acting independently. John Van Vleck surveyed ferromagnetism, beginning in the early 20th century with phenomenological treatments and later describing competing quantum mechanical approaches.'

"The symposium also demonstrated a commitment to applied research. Among the speakers were Richard Bozorth and Howell Williams of Bell Labs, who described their efforts to understand “the behavior of magnetic materials in apparatus developed as a part of the war effort.”7 Watertown Arsenal’s Clarence Zener, presenting on the fracture stress of steel, noted that “the sinews of warfare, namely guns, projectiles, and armor, are made of steel.


Roman Smoluchowski Photo Album

Roman Smoluchowski
Roman Smoluchowski
Roman Smoluchowski
Roman Smoluchowski
Roman Smoluchowski
Roman Smoluchowski
Roman Smoluchowski, University of Texas at Austin
Roman Smoluchowski


^Back to Top^