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Photo of Edward Condon

Edward U. Condon, 1902-1974


The extraordinary career of Edward Uhler Condon, president of the American Physical Society (1946) and of the American Association of Physics Teachers (1964) ended with his death in Boulder, Colorado, on 26 March 1974.

Born in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on 2 March 1902, Edward Condon was one of the young American scientists who made the pilgrimage in 1926 to Gottingen and Munich and grasped immediately the significance and power of the new quantum theory. As an undergraduate, Condon had worked as a reporter for the Oakland Inquirer, thinking he might pursue a career in journalism. But the intellectual challenge of physics, after a brief flirtation with chemistry, caught his fancy. When he returned from Gottingen, he worked briefly as a public-relations man for Bell Labs, lectured at Columbia, then embarked on an academic career that took him to Princeton, Minnesota, and back to Princeton, where he taught until 1937.

Like most great scientists, Condon made important contributions w hile still a student. The basis for his papers on the separability of electronic and vibrational motions in molecules (the Franck-Condon Principle) was in his Berkeley thesis. With R.W. Gurney, he was an early explorer of quantum-mechanical tunneling, applied to the phenomenon of alpha-particle radioactivity. In 193, with Gregory Breit and Richard Present, he interpreted proton-proton scattering data and established the importance of charge independence in the strong nuclear interaction. His early solid-state theory work was the explanation of optical rotatory power, and later he studied semiconductor contact potentials.

With Philip M. Morse, he wrote the first English-language text on quantum mechanics (1929). With G.H. Shortley, he wrote the Theory of Atomic Spectra (1936), still the primary treatise in the field. In later years, the Handbook of Physics which he edited with Hugh Odishaw, and his editorship of Reviews of Modern Physics demonstrated once again his facility for dealing with the full range of topics in physics. Younger physicists who may wish to emulate Condon's courageous public record as an outspoken defender of truth, civil liberties, and peace may lose sight of the momumental research contributions that won him the admiration of his fellow scientists and the respect of the public, which permitted him to make a major impact on public affairs.

The second phase of Condon's career began with his move to Westinghouse as associate director of research, just two years before the beginning of World War II in Europe. He brought Westinghouse into the nuclear age and earned an accolade from Time as "king of the atomic world". He served on the National Defense Research Committee during World War II, but was not present at his birthplace in Alamogordo when the Trinity explosion gave that small New Mexico town its second claim to fame.

With the war over, Condon became director of the National Bureau of Standards, and, concurrently, science advisor to Senator Brian McMahon, chairman of the special Senate committee on atomic energy. McMahon was leading the forces for civilian control of the nuclear-weapons program and with Condon's active help saw success in the McMahon-Douglas bill, passed in August 1946. Condon believed deeply that civilian control over nuclear weapons development and production was essential to avoidance of nuclear war.

At NBS, as he had at Westinghouse, Condon concentrated his attention on good science, stripping away administrative encrustations of the past, hiring the next generation of scientific leadership, pulling together programs (like building technology) of great potential benefit to the public. He built the NBS Boulder Laboratories. But soon these accomplishments were dwarfed in the public eye by the relentless attacks of Congressman J. Parnell Thomas and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which Thomas headed. The press picked up the phrase in a HUAC report that stated "It appears that Dr. Condon is one of the weakest links in our atomic security." Time and time again, his security clearance status was reviewed and re-established, only to be challenged again. Finally, in 1951, wiht his record cleared and with Parnell Thomas in Danbury Prison, convicted of taking kickbacks from his office staff, Condon left government to become head of research and development for the Corning Glass Works.

In October 1954, Condon's Navy clearance was again re-established in connection with government contract research at Corning. When the clearance was dramatically suspended by intervention of the Secretary oft he Navy, the press reported that Vice President Nixon, a former member of HUAC, implied in campaign speeches that he had requested the suspension.

Ten years later, after Condon had taught at Oberlin two years and at Washington University for seven, he moved to Boulder, Colorado, as professor of physics and fellow of the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics. His security clearance was quietly restored, clearing his record once again.

What kind of man was he? Grace Marmor Spruch's profile in Saturday Review (1 February 1969) says it well:

"The composite Condon is a moral, impassioned man, with a depth of concern for mankind not common in scientists; a man fiercely principled and anti diplomatic; a man who believes and feels in sharp contrasts, and who will let the world know his position without ambiguity. Fuzzimindedness is an anathema to him and he insists on saying so at every opportunity. But this rasping trait is wedded to an extreme generosity and kindness. Throughout his life he has given freely of his time, his counsel, his finances, and his home."


Watergate came as no surprise to Edward Condon, nor did its aftermath. I imagine he would like to have lived to see the outcome of the impeachment inquiry. But Condon understood and paid his share of the price of liberty. Somehow his idealism, his sense of humor and his inexhaustible energy made his relentless quest for a better world look like optimism. He was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science during the height of his troubles with HUAC. He was president of the society for Social Responsibility in Science (1968-69) and was co-chairman of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (1970). He was appropriately honored on his retirement from JILA and the University of Colorado in the summer of 1970 by the volume edited by Brittin and Odabasi. Brittin relates a comment about Condon by E. Bright Wilson: "Sometimes I think he looks for trouble", Wilson said. Condon's reply: "It's not hard to find."

Sadly, brilliant scientists - who serve their country and principles, their love of truth and their fellow citizens with relentless determination and delightful good humour - are hard to find indeed.

Lewis M. Branscomb
Vice President and Chief Scientist
International Business Machines Corporation

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