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Raymond Thayer Birge



Raymond T. Birge
Photo © National Academy of Sciences, originating from here.
                             Raymond Thayer Birge was born 1887 in New York, died in Berkeley 1980. Birge studied physics at the University of Wisconson where he received his Ph.D. in 1913; his thesis concerned the measurement of the band spectrum of nitrogen under high dispersion. He was connected with the physics department in Berkeley from 1918 until his retirement in 1955, and he was chairman of the department from 1932 to 1955. In this time as chairman people like E.O. Lawrence and J.R. Oppenheimer were hired, he had students like Giauque and Urey.

Please note : The following text is taken from Berkeley.edu.
(All fonts in bold by this website.)

Raymond Thayer Birge, Physics: Berkeley

Professor Emeritus

Raymond Thayer Birge, Professor of Physics, Emeritus, died on March 22, 1980, at age ninety-three. Birge was a member of the physics faculty at Berkeley from 1918 until his retirement in 1955, and he was chairman of the department from 1932 to 1955. He was widely known to physicists for his work on the fundamental constants and to members of the Berkeley campus for his work in physics and for his activities in Academic Senate and administrative affairs.

Birge was born in Brooklyn on March 13, 1887. When he was eleven, his family moved to Troy, New York, where he remained through his high school years. He graduated from high school in 1905 as valedictorian of his class. He took both physics and chemistry in high school and particularly liked physics. Because of the failure of his father's business in 1905, he entered business college in Troy and was soon asked to teach in the night sessions. When his uncle, Charles T. Raymond, offered to pay his college expenses, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the spring semester of 1906. The reason for this choice was that another uncle, Edward Asahel Birge, was a professor of biology and dean of the faculties there. E.A. Birge was a pioneer in the study of limnology, a distinguished member of the faculty, and from 1918 to 1925 president of the University. R.T. Birge took physics in the academic year 1906-07, found it interesting and elected it as his major. He did a senior thesis under Professor L.R. Ingersoll on the reflecting power of metals but later wrote that as an experimental physicist his talents were "strictly circumscribed." He graduated in 1909 after three and a half years and a summer session, with very high grades. He then entered graduate work and received his Ph.D. in 1913; his thesis concerned the measurement of the band spectrum of nitrogen under high dispersion. In spite of the fact that exposures took several days, he preserved the dispersion by staying with the apparatus and changing the temperature by hand to compensate for changes in barometric pressure. For three of his four years he was a teaching assistant in physics. He wrote that he did not easily attain a true understanding of physical phenomena but he worked hard at it, for he was not satisfied with teaching, which he enjoyed, until he had achieved such an understanding.

In the summer of 1913, he married Irene A. Walsh who had also been a student in Madison whom he had met four years earlier through a walking club that he had helped to form. The two moved to Syracuse University where he had accepted a position as instructor in physics. He went to Syracuse because F.A. Saunders, an important spectroscopist (Russell-Saunders coupling), was there. Unfortunately for Birge, Saunders was on sabbatical leave for the year 1913-14 and then accepted a position at Vassar College where he remained until going to Harvard in 1919. Birge stayed at Syracuse for five years and he taught a variety of courses and did research in spectroscopy, measuring and interpreting spectra obtained during his years as a graduate student and a summer spent at Madison. He started in computing because there was no equipment for experimental work, and this interest in computing shaped much of his research for the rest of his life. The atmosphere at Syracuse was oppressive for scholars. When an opportunity came in 1918 to join the faculty at Berkeley, Birge happily took it even though the appointment was as Instructor and he had been promoted to assistant professor at Syracuse. After serving as Instructor for two years, Assistant Professor for two years, and Associate Professor for four years, he was promoted to the rank of Professor in 1926. In November of 1932, E.E. Hall, the chairman of the physics department, died suddenly and Birge was named acting chairman. His appointment as chairman was confirmed in 1933 and he continued in this position until his retirement in 1955.

The Birges lived for many years close to the campus at 1639 La Vereda Road in Berkeley, where, over the years of his chairmanship, several hundred graduate students in physics were supper guests in their home. They had two children, Carolyn Elizabeth (Mrs. E.D. Yocky) and Robert Walsh, Associate Director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory for Physics, Computer Science, and Mathematics for the years 1973-81. They had six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Irene died just three weeks before Raymond. He was a loving and kind husband, father, and grandfather although reserved and shy in public.

When he came to Berkeley, he found a sharp division between the physics and chemistry departments. The "cubical atom" of G.N. Lewis was the fashion, and Birge, with his espousal of the Bohr atomic theory, was at first not popular among the chemists. For many years, however, he taught a course in atomic structure, and many chemistry students, including two Nobel prize winners, Giauque and Urey, took this course. In a biographical account, he lists as one of his greatest accomplishments the bringing together of the physics and chemistry departments. Most of his research work before 1929 was in the field of molecular spectra. In 1926, he wrote for the Bulletin of the National Research Council an extended section on electronic band spectra as part of its Report on Molecular Spectra in Gases. This comprehensive review was for many years the standard on the subject. In 1926, with Hertha Sponer, an international fellow in chemistry, he published a method of determining the heat of dissociation of diatomic molecules from spectroscopic data. The Birge-Sponer method provided the only method of determining this quantity, very important in understanding diatomic molecules, for such molecules as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon monoxide and nitric acid which are relatively little dissociated at temperatures available in the laboratory. Her knowledge of physical chemistry complemented his of spectroscopy, and this important discovery showed the value of joining physics and chemistry.

Birge was well known to physicists from 1929 on for his work in establishing the best values of the physical constants. He realized, for example, that accurate measurements of the wavelengths of spectral lines in hydrogen determined an accurate value of the Rydberg constant which involved the charge and mass of the electron, Planck's constant, and the speed of light. With his superb ability to correlate data and determine probable errors for related quantities, Birge calculated for the first paper in the first issue of the Reviews of Modern Physics in 1929 a set of best values for the physical constants, many of them derived from measured quantities such as the Rydberg constant. His pioneering work in this field lasted into the early 1950's and required him to delve into many branches of physics and chemistry. This he did with great thoroughness to the benefit of the whole scientific community.

There is an interesting story about Birge's part in the discovery of the isotope of C13 which he published with A.S. King in 1929. King, who was at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, had come to Berkeley for a meeting, bringing a picture of the spectrum of some bands of carbon that he had taken in his laboratory. He showed it to Birge, mentioning that there were some faint lines that he thought might be due to an isotope of carbon. Birge at once measured them, did the necessary calculations and interpretations to show they were from C13, typed up the paper himself and mailed it to the Physical Review, all in eight hours. In his history of the Department of Physics, he points out that this is probably some sort of record.

In 1931 with D.H. Menzel, he published a paper on atomic weights, pointing out that the values indicated the existence of an isotope of hydrogen of mass two. Their prediction, later found to be based on two compensating errors in the experimental measurements, led Urey to his discovery of deuterium. Birge earlier realized that the usual methods of statistics were not in forms which could readily be used by physical scientists and, with W.E. Deming, he wrote several papers providing useful methods of least squares fitting and maximum likelihood.

More than any other person, Birge is responsible for the building in Berkeley of an outstanding Department of Physics. In the late 1920's, he took an active part in recruiting new members for the Department. E.O. Lawrence came to Berkeley in 1928, and J.R. Oppenheimer came in 1929, first spending part-time in Berkeley, part-time in Pasadena at Cal Tech. During World War II about half of his faculty was gone from Berkeley on "war work," but he still had to staff the courses particularly for the large numbers of army and navy students. Aided by F.A. Jenkins, he was able to recruit members of other departments to help in both lecture and laboratory courses. Only a very few of the graduate students remaining in Berkeley were not involved in the uranium isotope separation and hence could serve as teaching assistants. Very much occupied with departmental problems, Birge was rarely able to devote time to his research.

When the war was over he was able to resume his program of building a great physics department. Lawrence had not taught since about 1939 and was too involved in managing the vastly expanded Radiation Laboratory to resume teaching. Oppenheimer, although he returned several times for short periods, finally, in 1947, left permanently to become director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. However, Alvarez, Brode, McMillan, and Segré returned to faculty positions. Serber and then Wick took over the work in theoretical physics and younger people were added to the faculty. Distinguished work was being done in Berkeley in discharges in gases, cosmic rays, and spectroscopy as well as in both theoretical and experimental nuclear and high energy physics. The department realized that solid state physics was an important area in physics, and so, in 1951, Charles Kittel and Arthur Kip were added to the faculty to start work in this field. Further additions have secured for Berkeley a prominent place in this area. As J.D. Jackson said in the memorial service for Birge at the Faculty Club on April 8, 1980, "No small part of the pre-eminence (of the University of California at Berkeley) can be attributed to the development of a great Department of Physics, with Raymond Birge as its energetic and creative Chairman." Between 1933 and 1955 the numbers of graduate students grew from about sixty to about two hundred and fifty, the number of faculty from thirteen to thirty, and the number of Ph.D.'s awarded in physics from sixty-eight to four hundred and one. But the most important influence of Birge was in the distinction of the faculty. The number of National Academy members grew from one (Birge) to eight and five Nobel prize winners were or became members of the faculty during his tenure as chairman.

The several years beginning in 1949 when The Regents imposed a loyalty oath were especially difficult for Birge. Several faculty members were lost from Physics. However, his fierce loyalty to the University made him decide he should fight from within rather than leave. Thus, he signed the oath but appreciated the point of view of those who refused. He was outspoken in his opposition to the oath and worked hard to get it rescinded.

Birge was very proud of his appointment as Faculty Research Lecturer in 1946. His faculty research lecture sets forth not only the history of his own research covering spectroscopy, methods of computation, and the determination of the best values of the physical constants, but also contains his philosophy on scientific research. He closes by saying:

Birge's distinction as a member of the Berkeley faculty was also recognized in part by his election to the Committee on Committees for the years 1944 through 1950. He was a member of the Graduate Council in 1930-31, 1932-33, 1933-34 and of the Committee on Educational Policy in 1939-40 and 1940-41. By many colleagues he is best remembered for his service to the Committee on Research on which he served in 1935-36 and then from 1941 to 1953, the last eight of these years as chairman. Financial support of research on the Berkeley campus has always been difficult; but Birge brought to it a satisfying degree of fairness which accompanied his tenure in office. Although he served on a number of other committees (Memorial Resolutions, Undergraduate Scholarships, Honorary Degrees, Coordinating, Representative Assembly and Faculty Research Lecture), he is perhaps second best remembered for his work on the calendar. He was the chairman of the Administrative Committee on the calendar (1953-1955) and the real expert for many years before on its intricacies. Some non-scientists on the campus jokingly complained that Birge in the days of the "old Berkeley calendar" (first semester ended before Christmas) made it up so that chemists and physicists could attend during spring vacation the meetings of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society. In connection with the calendar, he once wrote that he had received an ideal calendar suggestion; at least it was ideal until he counted the number of weeks in the year and found it totaled fifty-three.

When he retired in 1955, he had stopped active work in the field of the best values of the physical constants, and he took up the task of writing a definitive history of the Department of Physics. This rather lengthy document was written with meticulous care, and it records with characteristic honesty everything that he was able to find out about the department before 1918, when he came to Berkeley, and everything that he had lived through up to 1950. He intended to continue the history but was prevented by the fact that much information was confidential. It is preserved in the library of the Department of Physics. He also contributed an oral history to the archives in the Bancroft Library.

From his concern with statistics, he became interested in experimental tests of parapsychology. He approached the subject with a fair and open mind, did a great deal of reading on work in the field and did some statistical tests of his own on the data. He gave many popular talks on the subject and concluded that there were not any experimental demonstrations of the reality of parapsychology.

December 21, 1964, was a proud day in the life of Raymond Birge. The American Physical Society met in Berkeley and set aside the afternoon to honor him by dedicating the new physics building, Birge Hall. He was active in the American Physical Society throughout his professional life. He served as Pacific Coast Secretary from 1942 to 1947. In 1954, he was elected vice president and succeeded to the presidency in 1955. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society. As he retired in 1955, he was awarded the L.L.D. degree by the University of California in Berkeley, a fitting conclusion to his illustrious career.

Birge was a man of utmost honesty and of the very highest integrity. He was known throughout the world of physics and on the campus for this honesty and for his scrupulous accuracy. As is natural for men of strong character, there are many stories about him; perhaps the most famous is that told by Harold Urey at the dedication of Birge Hall. Dick Crane of Michigan came to Berkeley to teach physics in the summer of 1949. When he asked Birge about his classroom assignment, Birge thought a moment and then answered, "Let's see. You're teaching 121. Last year Fermi taught that course and we had to move the class twice to larger rooms, but we won't have that trouble with you teaching the course, will we?" He loved to teach and took care that the teaching in the Department of Physics was good. His own lectures were models of accuracy and clarity. He believed in a nice balance between teaching and research and, in addition, he himself was outstanding in campus and university service.

In one of his last papers, presented at the Avogadro Centenary Symposium in Italy in September 1956, he spoke the following words:

E.M. McMillan
R.B. Brode
A.C. Helmholz
E.W. Strong

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Copyright © Dec. 22, 2002 by U. Anders, Ph.D.
e-mail Udo Anders : udo39@t-online.de

Last updated : Dec. 22, 2002 - 17:51 CET