Polykarp Kusch (1911-1993)

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Polykarp Kusch, an accomplished physicist and Nobel laureate, born in Blankenburg, Germany on January 26, 1911.

In 1912, the Kusch family moved from Germany to the United States, where Polykarp would later build his reputation as a respected and successful scientist. After concluding his pre-college education in the Midwest, Kusch enrolled in the Case Institute of Technology (now the Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland, Ohio. Although he initially planned to pursue a degree in chemistry, his interests quickly shifted toward physics, and he received his Bachelor of Science in the subject in 1931. Kusch continued his secondary education at the University of Illinois, where he earned both his Master of Science and Ph. D. in 1933 and 1937, respectively.

Upon completing his education, Kusch began a career in scientific research. He held his first position at the University of Minnesota, where he worked as a research assistant. There, he learned the technique of mass spectroscopy and garnered the support of his supervisors, which eventually led to his appointment as an instructor at Columbia University in New York City. At Columbia, Kusch worked in the lab of I.I. Rabi, and had the opportunity to take part in the magnetic resonance spectroscopy research that would later win Rabi the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1941, Kusch left Columbia for a few years, during which time he researched and developed microwave generators and vacuum tubes for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

Around 1946, Kusch returned to Columbia, where he accepted a position as associate professor and conducted research in quantum mechanics. Specifically, he was most interested in the components of the atom – protons, neutrons, and electrons – and the ways in which they interacted with each other. This research would lead to his sharing of the 1955 Nobel Prize in Physics with Willis. E. Lamb. Kusch won his portion of the prize for “his precision determination of the magnetic moment of the electron,” a breakthrough that led to the development of a new field of physics called quantum electrodynamics, which describes how light and matter interact with one another.

In 1949, Kusch was promoted to full professor at Columbia; he would eventually become academic vice president and provost of the university.  In 1972 he decided to leave Columbia for the newly established University of Texas in Dallas, where he assumed a position as professor – he retained this role until his retirement in 1982. As Kusch’s career reached its later stages, he became more interested in societal issues, such as overpopulation and education, and the manners in which they could impact scientific progress. Besides the Nobel Prize, Kusch received many other awards, including the Illinois Achievement award in 1975. He was also a member of several important organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Philosophical Society.

There is little evidence in the Pauling Papers of extensive interaction between Kusch and Pauling.  Two sets of correspondence, however, suggest that the pair did share certain commonalities, and are indicative of the traits that, for better and for worse, tended to define Pauling’s professional life.

In the first instance, Kusch sent a telegram to Pauling dated November 7, 1960 indicating that one A. F. Forance had invited him to appear at an educational gathering but that, “in no event will I speak before his group.  I intend to send a letter of vigorous protest.”  It appears that Kusch’s note was sent in reaction to Forance’s having slighted Linus Pauling – an all too common occurrence for Pauling during this chapter in his life.

As it turns out, Pauling had been scheduled to deliver the principal address at the annual meeting of the Ohio Science Education Association in Columbus, and a second lecture to a smaller group in Cincinnati, both events organized by Mr. Forance.  Two days before the first lecture, Pauling learned from an Associated Press reporter that his Cincinnati appearance had been canceled, due to protests of Pauling’s politics (this was in the wake of Pauling’s SISS hearings) by a local American Legion group.  Pauling had received no official word from Forance however, and flew to Ohio as planned.  In his words

When I arrived in Cincinnati at 5 P.M. Mr. Forance and another teacher…met me at the airport.  We started on the auto trip to the city, and after perhaps fifteen minutes, Mr. Forance mentioned that the address for that night in Cincinnati had been canceled.

Pauling was understandably upset but chose to deliver his Columbus lecture as planned.  In responding to Kusch’s disgust-tinged telegram, Pauling counseled

We have to recognize that high school teachers and people in secondary education are quite vulnerable, and my own feelings about Mr. Forance have softened somewhat with the passage of time.

The second exchange between Kusch and Pauling, initiated some five months later, is indicative of their mutual scientific interests.  In it, Pauling comments on a paper that Kusch had recently co-published in the Journal of Chemical Physics.  Specifically, Pauling requests further information on the electronic magnetic moments, or lack thereof, in molecules of KFeCl3 and CsFeCl3. Pauling notes that “the matter is interesting to me because of the evidence that it provides about the iron-chloride bonds.”

Pauling to Kusch, March 30, 1961.

In providing the requested information, Kusch notes that “I am always delighted to have someone read my papers which generally describe an intense interest in a subject but not necessarily an interest of very many scientists in the subject matter.”  Indeed, this trait of intense interests in all manner of scientific topics shows up again and again in Pauling’s exchanges with his colleagues.  Coupled with an extraordinary work ethic, Pauling’s never-ending sense of wonder about the world was, as much as any other trait, the secret to his success.

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