Nobel Laureate Victor Hess was a pioneer in developing ways to measure radium, but there was no way to have measured the effect that Jesuits would play in the shaping of his legacy.
On April 14, Fordham University held a day to honor Hess, its only Nobel Laureate, who received the esteemed international award 75 years ago for his discovery of cosmic particles.
Speaking to an audience of 137 on the Rose Hill campus, Martin Sanzari, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics, called Hess a courageous, dedicated scientist for whom the sky became the limit—literally.
As a post-doctoral student at the University of Vienna, Hess conducted a series of ionization experiments in hot air balloons inspired by the scientist Theodor Wulf, S.J.
In 1910, Father Wulf had measured ionization (electrical charge) levels at the bottom and the top of the 985-foot Eiffel Tower. While most scientists believed ionization was caused by radioactivity from ground minerals, Father Wulf’s experiment showed that ionization levels were puzzlingly higher at the top of the tower than at the bottom.
Father Wulf’s findings were not confirmed scientifically until Hess made a dramatic series of hot air balloon experiments over three years, from 1911 to 1913. On 10 separate trips, Hess went as high as 17,500 feet in a small balloon to measure ionization; what he found was that, at the height of several miles, ionization increased rapidly.
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|Hess, right, prior to one of his ten balloon trips to measure atmospheric ionization levels.|
Hess concluded that radiation must be entering the atmosphere from outer space, and he named the phenomenon “cosmic radiation,” also called “cosmic rays.”
“At this time, scientists had no idea that this phenomenon possibly existed,” Sanzari said. “This was the discovery that would win him the 1936 Nobel Prize in physics.”
In 1938, Hess, a Catholic married to a Jew, was tipped off by a sympathetic Gestapo officer that he was in danger of Nazi persecution if he stayed in Austria. The Hesses swiftly immigrated to New York, where the Jesuits at Fordham offered Hess a full professorship, Sanzari said.
Hess’ Fordham-based research flourished until his retirement in 1956 and even beyond, said Sanzari. He was tapped to conduct the first tests for radioactive fallout in the United States following the bombing of Hiroshima. At the request of the City of New York, Hess joined a consortium of scientists to investigate the science of producing artificial rain.
He also co-developed a method for detecting minute traces of radium in the human body.
Based on his expertise, Hess was hired by a company to test its radium dial workers—women who hand-painted watch dials so that the faces would glow at night—for radiation levels in their bodies. Hess determined that the workers were being dangerously exposed, Sanzari said.
“This testing was probably some of the first environmental testing of its kind,” he said.
In 1958, the University presented Hess with its highest honor, the prestigious Insignis Medal, which is awarded to “Catholic leaders for extraordinary distinction in the service of God through excellent performance in their professions.” Hess continued to do research at Fordham as professor emeritus until his death in 1964.
In 2008, Hess was feted again by the University when he was made a member of Fordham’s Hall of Honor. A plaque that bears his name hangs in the lobby of Rose Hill’s administration building.
“There are only a few universities in the country who have had a Nobel Prize winner on their faculty,” said Martin Sanzari, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics and the event organizer. “This 75th anniversary is a great opportunity for us to celebrate it.”
To pay homage to Hess’ research, Mark Alford, Ph.D., professor of physics at Washington University, delivered a keynote lecture on the area of Hess’ expertise: cosmology and particle physics.
“We scientists all hope that we, too, might make a difference of Hess’ level in the world,” Alford said.