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RAYMOND THAYER BIRGE March 13, 1887-March 22, 1980 BY A. CARL HELMHOLZ RAYMOND THAYER BIRGE, a member of the National Academy of Sciences from 1932, ctiect in Berkeley, Cali- fornia, on March 22, 1980, at the age of ninety-three. Prom- inent in the fielct of physics from 1920 to 1955, he retirect as chairman of the Department of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, after a tenure of twenty-three years. His determination of the precise values of physical constants anct his work in spectroscopy establishect his excellence as a phys- icist, while his key role in builcting a worict class Department of Physics at Berkeley established him as an equally outstanct- · · - 1ng ac mlnlstrator. EARLY LIFE Birge was born on March 13, ISS7, in Brooklyn, New York, into an oIc! New Englanct family. His father worked in river transport until IS98, when he became an executive in the launciry machine business anct mover! the family to Troy, New York. Raymonc! finished grammar school in Troy anct gracluatec! from Troy High School in 1905, valectictorian of his class. His lifelong interest in physics hac! aIreacly begun, but the honors he won were in Latin, there being no honors . . . . in science at that time. Although Ray tract planner! to attend college, his father's 73
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74 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS business failed just before his graduation from high school, ant! he entered the local business college instead to study bookkeeping. His accuracy and aptitude for numbers were evident, and he was soon asker! to teach night classes to the . . . beginning sections. Fortunately, at this time, Ray's uncle, Charles T. Raymond, offered to pay his expenses for a college eclucation. De- lightecI, Ray chose the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where another uncle, Ec~warc} Asahe! Birge, was clean of the F~l~v F`lward Birge, a pioneer in the field of limnology, server] as president of the University from 1918 to 1925. Ray, entering in 1906, began studying physics immecli- ately and soon decided to major in it. He receiver! his A.B. degree in 1909 after three-and-a-half years and a summer session, writing his senior thesis uncler L. R. Ingersoll on the reflecting power of metals. "As an experimental physicist," he later recorclect, "my talents were perfectly circumscribed. ~ couIcl take a piece of optical equipment, put it in perfect ad- justment, ant! get with it as precise or more precise readings than hac! ever been gotten before. But ~ was quite unable to construct such equipment." Since his academic work was excellent and he liked both Madison and the Physics Department, Birge deciclecl to con- tinue on to the Ph.D. He received his M.A. degree in 1910, ant} the Astrophysical fournal published his thesis, "Formulae for the Spectral Series for the Alkali Metals and Helium." His Ph.D. thesis (1913,1), in which he photographed the band spectrum of nitrogen at high dispersion, was supervised by C. E. Menclenhall, the best-known member of the De- partment. Vigilant regarding possible sources of error ant! intent on achieving high resolution, he kept the temperature constant to better than 0.~°C ant! compensated for changes in atmospheric pressure by purposeful changes in tempera- ture. His exposures ran un to five days. "For forty clays ~ lived .
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RAYMOND THAYER BIRGE 75 in the laboratory," he wrote, "leaving it only for meals, and reading a number of thermometers every few hours, clay ant! night." He finished this work at the end of the summer of 1913, though his degree was not officially awarcled until 1914. During his years in Madison Birge was one of the found- ers of a walking club, through which he met Irene Adelaide Walsh, who had come to Madison from Rectfield, South Da- kota. They were married on August 12, 1913. It was a very happy marriage. They remained! devoted to each other, ant! Irene cliecl just three weeks before Raymond. After their marriage the young couple mover! to Syracuse, New York, where Ray had accepted a position as instructor at Syracuse University, hoping to work with the well-known spectroscopist F. A. Saunders (Russ!ell-Saunclers coupling). Saunders, unfortunately, was away on sabbatical leave cluring the 1913-14 academic year, and in 1914 left Syracuse to join the physics faculty at Vassar College. Birge never got the chance to work with him. Syracuse was a sterile place for a young and ambitious person, eager to teach and do research. Nevertheless, Ray stayed there for five years, winning promotion after two to assistant professor. While at Syracuse he published several papers: on temperature effects in the use of concave gratings; on "Mathematical Structure of Band Series," an extension of his thesis work; anti, in the journal of the New York State Teachers Association, on "Some Popular Misconceptions in Physics." With S. F. Acree of the New York State College of Forestry, he also published on the theory of chemical indicators and on the precise value of the RyUberg constant. This last short paper, which appeared in Science, showed his grasp of the importance of determining the value of this constant with extreme accuracy in this case, to about five parts per mil- lion.
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76 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS BERKELEY In 1918, unhappy with his situation at Syracuse, Birge wrote to E. P. Lewis. Then the new head of the Physics De- partment at Berkeley, Lewis, a fellow spectroscopist, had two openings for instructors for the next year. He raised the sal- ary of one and offered it to Birge, who accepted with alacrity. Ray and Irene moved to Berkeley in the summer of 1918 and thus began his clistinguishec! career at the University of Cali- fornia of thirty-seven years. Possibly stimulated by Gilbert Lewis (no relation), who had been appointed Dean of the College of Chemistry in 1912, Lewis was interested in pro- moting research in physics. Leonard Loeb, William H. Williams, Victor Lenzen, and Raymond Birge were the founding members of this ultimately outstanding Depart- ment. The first task to which Birge set himself was the intro- duction of the Bohr theory of the atom. Gilbert Lewis had, with others such as Langmuir, formulated the cubical mode} of the atom that held sway on the campus. Over the next few years, with patience and persistence, Birge won over the Physics ant} then the Chemistry Departments a feat he later described as one of his most important achievements. When asked what was the difference between chemistry ant! phys- ics, he replied with a smile. "When Giauque and Johnston discoverect the isotopes 17 and 18 of oxygen, that was chem- istry because it was done in Gilman Hall. When King and ~ discovered the isotope 13 of carbon, that was physics because it was done in LeConte Hall." Since Birge started it in 191S, the cooperation of physics and chemistry in research ant! teaching has expanded and borne fruit. During his early years in Berkeley, Birge published a steady stream of papers, many on band spectra, some on the accurate values of the physical constants. From 1920 to 1925, for example, he produced eleven publications and thirteen
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RAYMOND THAYER BIRGE 77 abstracts of talks at American Physical Society meetings. In 1921 he published "The Balmer Series of Hydrogen ant! the Quantum Theory of Line Spectra" (192l,1), cited by Som- merfeld in his third edition of Atombau und Spectrallinien. This helped to build Berkeley's reputation, and in 1927, a com- mittee appointed by the National Research Council with E. C. Kemble as chairman wrote the 400-page Molecular Spectra in Gases about half of which was contributed by Birge (1926,11. In 1925 Dr. Hertha Sponer (later Mrs. lames Franck) came to Berkeley on an international fellowship and worked with Birge in the field of band spectra. Together they produced "Heat of Dissociation of Nonpolar Molecules" (1926,21. Theirs was the first quantitative method of deter- mining this important constant, accomplished by extrapolat- ing vibrational spectra to the limit of zero frequency. Hertha's knowledge of chemistry and Ray's of spectra made this a most profitable collaboration. Birge realized, for example, that the Ry~berg constant was determined by an exact relation of e, h, and m, and con- sequently that the best values of these constants determined by other means (in the case of m by e/m) must fit the best value of the RyUberg from experiment. A number of his pa- pers previous to 1928 had been concerned with best values of the physical constants. In 1928 he submitted "Molecular Constants Derived from Band Spectra of Diatomic Mole- cules" to the International Critical Tables (1929,1), and it was natural that he should also submit a review paper, "Probable Values of the General Physical Constants" (1929,3), to the new Physical Review Supplement. Shortly after it was published, the name of this journal was changed to Reviews of Modern Physics, so that this important paper probably the most im- portant that Birge ever wrote—is the first article to appear in this journal. "Probable Values of the General Physical Constants" is a
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78 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS remarkable work, covering constants from the velocity of light through the mechanical equivalent of heat, ant} Avo- gadro's number to Planck's constant. The article was openly critical of the work of others, and Birge said in interviews that he might not have any friends left once it was published. Careful and painstaking, it established a whole new field in which he was clearly the leacler, until DuMond and Cohen used his methods with computers in the late 1940s. Regarding the propagation of errors, Birge wrote with I. D. Shea on least squares solutions of polynomials in 1924, and, eight years later, "Calculation of Errors by the Method of Least Squares" (193Y,11. He then produced "On the Sta- tistical Theory of Errors" (1934,1) and later, "Least Squares' Fitting of Data by Means of Polynomials," with a mathemat- ical appendix by J. W. Weinberg, which appeared in Reviews of Modern Physics ~1947, I ). Birge himself considered this final paper a satisfactory conclusion to his long-stand~ing work. An interesting story is associates! with Birge and King's discovery of the isotope of carbon of mass 13. A. S. King, of At. Wilson Observatory, was in Berkeley in July, 1929, at a meeting of the American Physical Society. At about 4 o'clock, after the close of the meeting, King showed Birge a plate he had taken of the Swan bands of carbon from a carbon fur- nace and questioned him about the possible origins of some faint lines in the bands. Birge, with recent experience on the isotopes of oxygen, immediately realized that these might be clue to an isotope of carbon of mass 13. He measured them on his comparator, performed the calculations, wrote the pa- per with King, and by one o'clock the next morning mailecl the article to Nature and to Physical Review ( 1929,2) the fast- est paper, he used to say, he had ever written. Birge also investigated isotopes with D. H. Menzel, their work resulting in '`The Relative Abundance of the Oxygen Isotopes and the Atomic Weight System" (193l,1L). When
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RAYMOND THAYER BIRGE 79 Menzel, at the Lick Observatory, consulted with Birge about measurements of spectra from the sun ant! the abundance of the isotopes, Birge noticed that the atomic weight of hy- drogen measured in mass spectrographs did not agree with the chemically measured atomic weight. He noted that this discrepancy coup! be explained by the presence in hydrogen of mass 2, thereby prompting a flurry of experiments in the race to find the isotope; Harold C. Urey, then at Columbia, eventually won this race and was awarded the 1934 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery, but Birge's prediction on an abundance of ~ in 6000 for deuterium is quite close to the present value. CHAIRMAN OF THE DEPARTMENT OF PHYSICS When E. P. Lewis died in 1926, Birge and E. E. Hall were appointed to the search committee for a new physics chair- man. Hall was eventually named to the post and remained chairman until his cleath In November 1932. Because Hall was not widely acquainted with physicists, the responsibility for making new faculty appointments fell mainly to Birge and Loeb. This spectacular period saw the additions of E. O. Lawrence, I. R. Oppenheimer, R. B. Brode, F. A. Jenkins, and H. E. White to the Berkeley staff. When Hall died, Birge was named acting chairman, then chairman, a post he occu- piec} until his retirement in 1955. During his tenure both faculty and graduate students quadruplet! in number so that, shortly after he retired, 300 graduate students were enrolled. Birge himself took great care with the quality of instruc- tion and when chairman continued to teach graduate courses in physical optics and in reduction of observations. His very high standards for his department, both in teaching and re- search, account in very large part for the growth in distinc- tion of physics at Berkeley. Birge was presented with a new set of problems during
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80 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS the years of World War Il. His faculty ctispersed to various locations around! the country to do war work. Fortunately, he was able to fins! a number of substitutes among the physicists Lawrence brought to Berkeley for his Manhattan Project work. But he was faced with the problem of staffing a great many undergracluate courses for Army, Navy, ant! Air Force recruits in aciclition to Berkeley's regular quota of students, all with different schedules. With the help of his faithful sec- retary, Rebecca Young, he somehow managed in this exacting job. At war's end, Berkeley's faculty returned, and the school became for many returning G1's the first choice for graduate work in physics. Classes and research work hac! to be starter! up again ant} expanded. Lawrence was anxious to build the IS4-inch cyclotron, McMilIan to build the synchrotron, anct Alvarez to build the proton linear accelerator. Many graduate students were employed, and the faculty introducer! several new fields of research. Nierenberg was brought to start work in atomic beams, Kitte] and Kip in solid state theoretical and experimental physics, Reynolds in mass spectroscopy, Knight and Jeffries in magnetic resonance—all in addition to new faculty members in nuclear, high energy, and theoretical physics. Oppenheimer never returned to Berkeley full-time and left in October 1947 to become the Director of the In- stitute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Serber and Wick (with younger members like Chew and Lewis) manager! the theoretical program. A new building was necessary, and with help from Harvey White, new LeConte Hall joined to old LeConte was opened in late 1950. HONORS AND DISTINCTIONS The Department continued to grow after Birge's retire- ment in 1955, and the American Physical Society, meeting in Berkeley on December 2l, 1964, set aside the afternoon to
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RAYMOND THAYER BIRGE 81 dedicate another new building, Birge Hall. Birge was deeply moved by this tribute, one that so rarely comes to a person during his life. He was also proud of his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1932. The first physicist ever elected from Berkeley, it is a tribute to his administrative skill that his De- partment now contains more Academy members than any other physics department in the country. Throughout his years on the faculty, Birge was active in the Academic Senate, and in 1946 the faculty voted him their highest honor faculty research lecturer. He was also an ac- tive member of the Committee on the Calendar and served as chairman for several years. Campus wags used to accuse Birge of arranging the calendar so that physicists could at- tend the meetings of the American Physical Society and of the National Academy during the spring vacation. He him- self liked to tell of one ideal calendar suggestion he had re- ceived, whose only fault was a schedule of fifty-three weeks in the year. Deeply dismayed by the "oath dispute" in 1949 and 1950, he did his best in the Academic Senate to avoid the imposition of a loyalty oath. He failed, and though he himself signed, several of his faculty refused to do so and left Berkeley because of it. From 1942 to 1947 he served as Pacific Coast Secretary of the American Physical Society. This was before the days of air travel, and very few physicists came to Pacific Coast meet- ings. When Ray retired from this position, K. K. Darrow, secretary of the Society and a close friend, cited his outstand- ing work and commended him for saving postage and paper by writing small and single-spacing everything! In 1954 he was elected vice president of the Physical Society and suc- ceeded to the presidency in 1955. He faithfully attended all the meetings and ran the Council sessions with expert fair- ness. In his retiring address, "Physics and Physicists of the
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82 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS Past Fifty Years" (1956,1), he reviewed the evolving state of his science throughout his long career. When Birge retired in 1955 the University of California awarded him the LL.D. degree, a fitting tribute to his long and clistinguishect service to the institution. He kept an office in LeConte Hall for a number of years and finished a history of the Physics Department from 186S, the year the University opened, to 1955. This admittedly not very readable work is yet packed with information, and is, for many matters, the only reference source available. Birge had known every Phys- ics Department chairman except the first, John LeConte. He also contributed an oral history to the Bancroft Library In Berkeley. . RAYMOND BIRGE, THE MAN Ray and Irene Birge had two children, Carolyn Elizabeth (Mrs. E. D. Yocky) and Robert Walsh (married to Ann Cham- berIain). Each had three children, and the Yocky's have three grandchildren. Raymond Birge was a man of outstanding honesty and integrity. Reserved to most, he was yet loving to his family. His last scientific paper (1957,1) was read at the hundredth anniversary of the death of Avogadro in Turin, Italy, in Sep- tember 1956. His opening remarks at this conference (1957,2) express, better than any biographer could, his life- long reverence for and joy in science: "Now, to me, the study of science is, in a sense, a religion. For there can scarcely be anything more marvelous than the structure of nature, nor anything more satisfying than to aid, even in the smallest way, in the grad- ual unfolding of the intricacies of our universe. From the beginning of the human race, man has speculated on the wonders of his environment, but there is and can be nothing in even his wildest speculation in any way comparable to the actual facts of nature. For just this reason, the true objective study of science offers a never-ending and wholly satisfying hu- man endeavor: at least I have found it so."
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RAYMOND THAYER BIRGE SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY 83 1913 The first Deslandres' group of the positive band spectrum of ni- trogen under high dispersion. Astrophys. I., 39:50-88. 1921 The Balmer series of hydrogen and the quantum theory of line spectra. Phys. Rev., 17:589-607. 1926 Report on molecular spectra in gases. Bull. Nat. Res. Counc. (U.S.), 57:69-259. With H. Sponer. The heat of dissociation of nonpolar molecules. Phys. Rev.,28:259-83. 1929 Molecular constants derived from band spectra of diatomic mole- cules. Int. Critical Tables V, 409-18. With A. S. King. An isotope of carbon, mass 13. Phys. Rev., 34:376 ~ July 1 5, 1 9291; Nature, 1 24: 1 27. Probable values of the general physical constants. Phys. Rev. (Suppl. 1), 1-73. 1931 With D. H. Menzel. The relative abundance of the oxygen isotopes, and the basis of the atomic weight system. Phys. Rev.,37: 1669- 71. 1932 The calculation of errors by the method of least squares. Phys. Rev., 40:207-27. 1934 With W. E. Deming. On the statistical theory of errors. Rev. Mod. Phys., 6:119-61.
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84 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS 1947 Least squares' fitting of data by means of polynomials. Rev. Mod. Phys., 19: 298-347. (With appendix by J. W. Weinberg, 348- 60.) 1956 Physics and physicists of the past fifty years. Address of Retiring President of American Physical Society, delivered in New York City, February 2, 1956. Phys. Today, 9:20-28. 1957 A survey of the systematic evaluation of the universal physical con- stants. Address at the Avogadro Congress, Turin, Italy, Septem- ber 1956. No. 1, Suppl. 6, Ser. X Nuovo Cimento, pp. 39-67. Words spoken in memory of Amadeo Avogadro and for the open- ing of the Congresses. No. 1, Suppl. 6, Ser. X Nuovo Cimento, pp. 35-38.
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Representative terms from entire chapter: