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Peierls, Sir Rudolf Ernest

physics uranium studied theory

[pay erlz] (1907–95) German–British theoretical physicist: contributed to solid-state physics, quantum mechanics and nuclear physics.

Peierls was educated at Berlin, and then studied under in Munich, in Leipzig and as assistant in Zürich. Research in Rome, Cambridge and Manchester followed and in 1937 he was appointed professor at Birmingham. In 1963 he moved to Oxford and from 1974–77 to the University of Washington, Seattle.

Peierls began research in physics during the dawn of quantum mechanics in 1928; the basic theory was complete but its applications to almost every physical system hardly begun. Peierls studied the theory of solids and analysed how electrons move in them, concentrating on the effect of magnetic fields (notably the Hall effect). In 1929 he explained heat conduction in non-metals, predicting an exponential growth of their thermal conductivity at low temperatures, as was verified in 1951. He also developed the theory of diamagnetism in metals.

Turning in 1933 to nuclear physics, he began to work out how protons and neutrons interact, and in 1938 showed how resonances (or dramatic increases in interaction) occur at particular beam energies in nuclear collisions. After the Second World War had begun, Peierls and studied uranium fission and the neutron emission that accompanies it with a release of energy. In an influential report (1940) they showed that a chain reaction could be generated in quite a small mass of enriched uranium, giving an atomic bomb of extraordinary ferocity. The British Government took this up, and Peierls led a theoretical group developing ways of separating uranium isotopes and also calculating the efficiency of the chain reaction. The work was moved to the USA as part of the combined Manhattan Project (1943), and by 1945 yielded the first atomic weapons and quickly brought the war with Japan to an end.

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