Seitz, Frederick

Seitz, Frederick
Jul. 4, 1911-Mar. 2, 2008
American physicist


Because of his significant contributions to the study of crystals and their characteristics as well as to nuclear development, Dr. Frederick Seitz, professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana, is regarded as one of America's outstanding physicists. He has been trained both in the techniques of the academic science laboratory and in commercial industrial research. Having taken part in the development of the atomic bomb at the Clinton Laboratories, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Dr. Seitz has become convinced that it is the duty of American scientists to participate in military research. He has warned against a slackening in American scientific progress, lest Western civilization be lost in a conflict with the U.S.S.R. "I feel it would be highly immoral not to do the best we can to preserve the state in which [Western] ideals represent the principal goal," wrote Dr. Seitz. "Who among us will feel sinless if he has remained passively by while Western culture was being overwhelmed?" (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March 1950).

Frederick Seitz was born in San Francisco, California on July 4, 1911, the son of Frederick and Emily Charlotte (Hoffman) Seitz. He attended the public schools in his native city, where he established a record as a good student and hard worker. In order to pay his tuition at Stanford University (California), Seitz delivered grocery orders and took on other jobs during holidays and summer vacations.

Following his graduation from Stanford in 1932 with an A.B. degree in mathematics, Seitz went East to continue his study of physics at Princeton University. Here he earned his Ph.D. degree in a period of two years (1934). Named to a fellowship at Princeton, he remained there till 1935, engaged in study and research.

Dr. Seitz was appointed an instructor of physics at the University of Rochester in New York for the academic year beginning September 1935. He was advanced to assistant professor in 1936, but he resigned the following year to work as a research physicist with the General Electric Company laboratories in Schenectady, New York. After two years with this company, Dr. Seitz accepted an associate professorship in the physics department of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

In 1942 he joined the faculty of the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as professor and chairman of the physics department, serving till 1949. In 1946-47 Seitz was director of the Monsanto Chemical Company training program in nuclear physics at the Clinton Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. At present he is research professor of physics at the University of Illinois, a position he assumed in 1949. At the university he has also served as director of the Control Systems Laboratory (1951-52) and as its technical administrator (since 1952).

The major portion of Dr. Seitz's work has been devoted to the study of crystals—solids having a definite internal structure created by the arrangement of their atoms which find external expression in their many planes and surfaces. They differ in their physical properties: for example, their cleavage, hardness, optical properties, and electrical conductivity. These qualities must be evaluated to determine what use will be made of them in industry. Since 1932 Dr. Seitz has prepared many scientific papers on his researches into the properties and characteristics of crystals.

He presented a new theory in 1934 on the symmetric states of atomic configurations (Journal of Chemical Physics, volume 2), and for several years thereafter he worked on the constitution of metallic lithium and lithium fluoride, and the magnetic qualities of lithium and sodium (see Physical Review, volume 47, 1935; volume 50, 1936; volume 58, 1940). He read a paper before the Faraday Society in 1939 on the interpretation of crystal luminescence (Transactions of the Farraday Society, volume 35).

Different chemical reactions have been noted by Dr. Seitz in crystals; he has discussed his findings in "The Theory of the Plastic Properties of Solids" (Journal of Applied Physics, volume 12, 1941); "Self Diffusion in Copper," "On the Theory of Vacancy Diffusion in Alloys," and "Fundamental Aspects of Diffusion in Solids" (Physical Review volume 62, 1942, volume 74, 1948, volume 75, 1949, respectively.) Basically, diffusion "can occur by means of either one of three geometrical paths, namely by direct interchange of atoms, by interstitial migration and by migration of vacant lattice sites…. Direct interchange appears to be forbidden in almost all cases, whereas interstitial and vacancy diffusion occur commonly in many familiar solids" (Science, May 7, 1948).

At the annual meeting of the National Academy of Science in 1952, Dr. Seitz presented his report "Imperfections in Nearly Perfect Crystals" (which comprises the first chapter of a book with the same title, published by John Wiley & Sons, New York). He found that six types of crystal imperfections were recognized; however, he suggested that certain types of imperfections might exist in materials with specialized properties, such as ferromagnetic materials. He also discussed the three transient imperfections which usually have a very short life within the crystal. Dr. Seitz found that two imperfections of the same type or of different types may interact to generate other imperfections, so that the group forms a closely interlocking family. This feature of the imperfections is regarded as an essential part of their pattern of behavior, intimately related to the normal properties of the imperfections.

Active in many movements to make the scientific world aware of its social responsibilities, Dr. Seitz joined with several other physicists in the publication of One World or None (McGraw-Hill, 1946). This book, prepared a few months after the atom bomb was dropped on Japan, explained the full meaning of the bomb and called attention to its severe destructive possibilities. It further asserted that any industrial nation could acquire the know-how and techniques to produce the bomb within a period of five years, and that no essential "secrets" could be guarded, for the knowledge of atomic bomb production would move on apace wherever research was being conducted (Time, March 25, 1946). In September 1949, three and a half years after this prediction was made, President Truman announced that the Soviet Union had exploded an A-bomb.

To ease the qualms of American scientists who in 1950 were hesitating to participate in research on the atomic bomb because of ethical reasons, Seitz urged that they consider the issues at stake in the present conflict between the West and the Soviet Union. In an address before the American Physical Society in February 1950 (expanded and published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March 1950), he viewed the problem in the light of historical perspective. Western civilization, evolving from the Renaissance with its concept of the "emancipation of the mind" is in conflict with Russian thought, which is "developing a pattern of culture as burdened with dogma, as nearly one dimensional as anything known in the last millenium." Dr. Seitz is pessimistic about any reconciliation between the Soviet Union and the West; at best, he hints at the possibility of co-existence. He stresses the fact that the West must maintain its strength to ward off the possibility of a Soviet attack. He sees "the most important ideals which have been evolved by mankind since the dawn of civilization" in danger unless the scientific population cooperates (New York Times, February 4, 1950).

In order to achieve a unified and constructive program for military research, Seitz urged in March 1950 the establishment of a scientific agency similar to the Office of Research and Development, which existed during World War II. He also recommended economic and technical aid to research programs conducted by the countries of Western Europe. During a University of Chicago Round Table radio program on February 26, 1950 he discussed his belief that a hydrogen bomb could exterminate a great part of the world's population—a view in which he was supported by world-famous physicists Harrison Brown, Hans Bethe, and Leo Szilard. He cautioned against the prevailing atmosphere of secrecy which prevented the public from knowing the full facts (Time, March 6, 1950). In November 1953 Dr. Seitz called for a heavier military budget to build up a strong defensive net against atomic attack (New York Times, November 15, 1953).

Besides contributing over sixty articles to professional journals, Seitz is the author of the McGraw-Hill publications The Modern Theory of Solids (1940) and The Physics of Metals (1943). He is also co-editor of Preparation and Characteristics of Solid Luminescent Materials (John Wiley & Sons, 1948). Dr. Seitz wrote the chapter entitled "Fundamental Aspects of Diffusion in Solids" for the scientific treatise Phase Transformations in Solids (John Wiley & Sons, 1951).

Honorary scientific organizations in which Dr. Seitz holds membership are the National Academy of Science, American Philosophical Society, American Physical Society, American Institute for Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, and the American Institute of Physics (chairman). He was elected to Sigma Xi and Tau Beta Pi, honorary science fraternities. He is chairman of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and a member of the advisory panel on general sciences in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. During World War II he served as section chief of the metallurgy project of the Manhattan District (1943-45) and special consultant to the Secretary of War (1945) in the European theater of operations.

Frederick Seitz married Elizabeth K. Marshall on May 18, 1935. The tall and "mild-mannered" physicist has delivered a few "eye-openers" to his scientific colleagues which are anything but gentle and is said to have impressed the Government with some of his statements on science and world affairs.

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