Frederick Seitz


seitz-frederickDr. Frederick Seitz had a major impact world-wide on solid-state physics. His role in the U.S. can be compared with that of Nevill Mott in England and Yakov Frenkel in the Soviet Union. He was also an outspoken critic of the politicization of science, particularly in the field of climate science, where he was an early and highly influential critic of alarmism. Besides Seitz’s pioneering scientific contributions, he was talented as an institution builder as well as a promoter and administrator of interdisciplinary cooperation in a broad scientific arena. He was one of the founders of the Science and Environmental Policy Project and served as its chairman from 1992 until his death in 2008.

Born July 4, 1911, Seitz attended Stanford, Caltech, and then Princeton, earning a Ph.D. in physics in 1934. After Princeton, Dr. Seitz accepted a position at the University of Rochester. By 1940, at the age of 29, he already had 24 publications to his credit. His book, The Modern Theory of Solids (McGraw-Hill) was published in 1940, when he was a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, by way of two years at General Electric Research Laboratories. It quickly became a primary source of instruction and inspiration to generations of students and researchers.

Dr. Seitz, a brilliant mathematical physicist, early came to a strong conviction of the importance of critical experimental work as part of the process of discovery in the field of condensed matter. This accounted for his years at GE and is reflected in Modern Theory of Solids, which has a first chapter giving an extraordinarily broad survey of observed phenomena in solids. His conviction was reinforced through his work on materials problems in nuclear reactors during and immediately after World War II.

During World War II, Dr. Seitz was drawn into a variety of work. First was consulting for Frankford Arsenal on metallurgy, then for the Radiation Laboratory at M.I.T. about silicon rectifiers, then a Carnegie Tech contract for the National Defense Research Laboratory, then the Metallurgical Laboratory of the Manhattan District at the University of Chicago, and finally the Field Intelligence Agency, Technical, based in Europe.

After the war, Dr. Seitz returned to Carnegie Tech as head of physics, as well as continuing other government-related work. In 1949 he moved to the University of Illinois and in 1957 became head of the physics department there.

Dr. Seitz served as chair of the Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics from 1954 to 1960 and as president of the American Physical Society in 1961. In 1964 he severed formal ties with Illinois to become the first full-time president of the National Academy of Sciences. Under NAS auspices, Dr. Seitz initiated a broad survey of the status and prospects of branches of the physical sciences.

For ten years, until 1978, Dr. Seitz served as fourth president of Rockefeller University. During his presidency, new research programs were begun in cell biology, molecular biology, neuroscience, and reproductive biology. New clinical studies in Rockefeller University Hospital were initiated, and a joint M.D.-Ph.D. program with Cornell University Medical College was begun. This initiative was in line with Dr. Seitz’s view that applied work and basic research are each better off for the other’s presence.

Upon his retirement as president of Rockefeller University, Seitz continued a “full and satisfying” life as active member of numerous other university and corporate boards and of a series of advisory committees for a wide variety of government organizations and of scientific societies. He founded the George C. Marshall Institute and was chairman of the Science and Environmental Policy Project – both organizations prominent in the debate over global warming — until his death in 2008.

Dr. Seitz was author of many books and hundreds of articles in scholarly journals. His books include The Modern Theory of Solids (1940), The Physics of Metals (1943), Scientific Perspectives on the Greenhouse Problem (with Robert Jastrow and William Aaron Nierenberg) (1990), On the Frontier, My Life in Science (1994), The Science Matrix: The Journey, Travails, Triumphs (1998), and A Selection of Highlights from the History of the National Academy of Sciences, 1863–2005 (2007).

Among Dr. Seitz’s awards were the Franklin Medal (1965), the AIP Compton Medal (1970), the National Medal of Science (1973, the country’s highest award for scientists), the NSF Vannevar Bush Award (1983), and numerous awards for distinguished service to U.S. government agencies. He was elected to nine Academies, including six abroad, and honored by 32 doctorates from universities in five countries. In 1993, the University of Illinois renamed the Materials Research Laboratory in his honor.

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