- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) — Hans A. Bethe, a giant of 20th-century physics who played a central role in the building of the atomic bomb and won a Nobel Prize for discovering the process that powers the sun and the stars, has died at 98.

Mr. Bethe, who died Sunday, stood alongside such figures as Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard and Edward Teller as a member of the corps of scientists who ushered in the atomic age.

During the World War II race to build the bomb, Mr. Bethe was head of the Manhattan Project’s theoretical physics division at Los Alamos, N.M.

“Mr. Bethe was the last of the giants of Los Alamos,” said Gerald Brown, a physics professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Mr. Bethe, who fled Nazi Germany and joined the Cornell University faculty in 1935, also made major discoveries about how atoms are built up from smaller particles, about what makes dying stars blow up and how the heavier elements are produced from the ashes of these supernovas.

He averaged a scientific breakthrough every decade or so, beginning during the golden age of physics between the world wars.

Mr. Bethe also played key roles in the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Even though the atomic bomb designers knew its calamitous potential, the weapon’s reality “was worse than we expected,” Mr. Bethe reflected in an interview with the Associated Press in 1996. “After Hiroshima, many of us said: ‘Let’s see that it doesn’t happen again.’”

“One of the things that was very special about Hans was his strong moral motivation,” said astrophysicist John Bahcall of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. “He did things because he believed they were right and not because they were convenient or helpful to him or promoted his career. His work on the bomb was motivated by a desire to preserve freedom and open society in the face of a spreading Nazi tyranny, which he knew about firsthand.”

Born in Strasbourg in 1906, Mr. Bethe (pronounced BAY-tuh) fled Germany in 1933 after losing a university post because his mother was Jewish.

Mr. Bethe emerged in an era bursting with discoveries about the building blocks of matter. In the infancy of modern atomic theory, he spelled out what was known and unknown in nuclear physics in a classic series of papers dubbed Mr. Bethe’s Bible.

In 1938, leading nuclear physicists were invited to solve a mystery that had long stumped the best scientific minds: the source of the sun’s energy. Just six weeks later, Mr. Bethe came up with his “carbon cycle” formula: He showed that virtually all the energy produced by the most brilliant stars stems from a fusion reaction in which hydrogen serves as the fuel and carbon as the catalyst.

His work eventually won him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1967.

Mr. Bethe’s survivors include his wife, Rose; a son, Henry; and a daughter, Monica.



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