Family, friends mark 100th birthday of Institute Professor Arthur von Hippel


Arthur Robert von Hippel has a long list of remarkable accomplishments spanning the past century, but one stood out above all others last week: longevity. The Institute Professor emeritus turned 100 on Thursday, Nov. 19, and family and friends gathered in his home Saturday evening to celebrate.

Professor von Hippel, a pioneer in materials research whose name graces the highest international honor awarded in that field -- the von Hippel Award of the Material Research Society -- is now beginning his second century of life, having witnessed two world wars, the development of radar, atomic power, computers and countless other technological and social changes since his birth in Rostock, Germany in 1898.

During Saturday's celebration, several of his friends from the Institute, among them his son, Professor Eric von Hippel of the Sloan School, presented Professor Arthur von Hippel with a framed resolution of the MIT faculty congratulating the centenary on his 100th birthday.

At the November 18 faculty meeting where the resolution was passed, Eric von Hippel represented his father, who was unable to attend but who remains in good health. According to his son, Professor von Hippel gave up cross-country skiiing only about five years ago, but continues to exercise by walking a mile every day. He greeted each of his guests at the birthday celebration and was genuinely pleased to have the gathering.

"My father has a very cheerful outlook on life. A few years ago during a hurricane, he insisted on going outside in the wind and rain. So we went out and the trees were crashing down around us, and he thought it was terrific. He loves nature in its extremes."

The younger von Hippel also talked about his father's influence on his career choice as he reminisced about his own childhood days spent at MIT.

"I attribute the fact that three out of five of my father's children became professors to his method of sharing his own excitement with work and life. Dad would bring me to MIT and I would run up and down the corridors with my sidekick, Zachary Wiesner. We'd stick our heads into offices and people would just invite us in," said Eric von Hippel, a member of the fifth generation of von Hippels to be professors.

"I can remember as a small boy telling my father I wanted to be a firefighter. He'd say, 'come to MIT with me,' where he'd show me all sorts of neat things. I learned indirectly that the life of a professor might conceivably compare with the life of a firefighter.

"I've been amused to notice that I'm following my father's methods with my own son, Eric Jr. For instance, when he said to me just last week, 'I want to be a firefighter,' I said, 'come to MIT with me and visit Professor Zahn's lab.' He spent an hour playing with Professor Zahn's lathe and materials-handling crane and on the way home he said pensively, 'You never told me professors had cranes. Maybe I'll be a professor and a firefighter.'

"There's a quality of openness in the MIT community, both in my father's time and now, that is extraordinary. And my father used to say that he is grateful for the joy and learning he experienced during his career here."

Professor Arthur von Hippel was trained as a physicist in Europe, fled Hitler's Germany with his wife Dagmar, the daughter of physicist James Franck, and came to the United States, where in 1936 Karl Taylor Compton invited him to MIT to be what Professor von Hippel described as the "physicist in the electrical engineering department." As an assistant professor and one of the first people to understand the molecular structure of materials, he founded the Laboratory for Insulation Research (LIR) in 1940 to study the electrical properties of materials.

His lab was involved with the effort to develop radar for the Allies during World War II, in conjunction with the Radiation Laboratory in Building 20. The Table of Dielectric Materials he compiled during that period remains the standard today. For this table and his work in developing the techniques and instrumentation needed to make the measurements it contains, Professor von Hippel received the President's Certificate of Merit in 1948, the second-highest honor given a civilian in this country.

During his education and long career, Professor von Hippel came to be associated with many of the best-known physicists of the past century, including Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wilhelm Wien, Peter Debye, Max Born, James Franck, Gustav Hertz, Wolfgang Pauli and Robert Oppenheimer. He directed the LIR until his retirement in 1964, then continued to teach and expand his research interests for many years.

At MIT, he was also known as the professor who treated his students to one-on-one conversation with tea and cookies, sometimes in lieu of a traditional written exam. Professor of Electrical Engineering Markus Zahn, who in 1969-70 took Professor von Hippel's two-semester course From Atoms Toward Living Systems, remembers those days fondly.

"As part of the course work, I used to meet weekly with von Hippel to discuss physics. His long-time secretary Aina Sils served cookies and tea. His lectures included many slides," he recalled. "Occasionally a slide of personal history would slip in, such as a picnic scene with a dignitary such as Albert Einstein. Then Professor von Hippel would tell us some anecdote���������������������������

"He was an extremely well-known professor when I was a student here. When you took his course, you took it not only for the technical knowledge he'd give you, but also for the anecdotes about the people he knew. Each day you'd go to class wondering who he'd show that day," said Professor Zahn, who does research with the Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems, part of which is considered to be a spin-off from the LIR. The LIR's chief progeny is the Center for Materials Science and Engineering, which honors Professor von Hippel with a reading room named after him.

"He was extremely helpful to me. He was kind of a mentor to me, and very, very supportive when I was head of the Center for Materials Science and Engineering," said Institute Professor Mildred Dresselhaus, who played violin with a string quartet at Professor von Hippel's party. She also played at his 90th birthday party at the Faculty Club.

At that event a decade ago, "there were about a hundred people there from around the world," Professor Dresselhaus said. "Some of usstood and gave impromptu remarks, and at the end of mine, I told him: 'I'm planning to play for your 100th birthday.'"

Other members of last weekend's string quartet were John Jelatis, retired Lincoln Lab scientist, on violin; Peter Hagelstein, professor of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) on viola; and Professor Dresselhaus's son Carl on cello.

Professor Paul Penfield, head of EECS, presented to Professor von Hippel a framed copy of the resolution from the faculty, along with a videotape of the November 18 meeting where the resolution was passed. The resolution reads:

"Be it hereby resolved that the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology extends its warm congratulations to Institute Professor Emeritus Arthur Robert von Hippel on the occasion of his hundredth birthday, on the 19th of November, 1998.

"Pioneering researcher whose work defined the broad new discipline of molecular engineering, dedicated teacher and mentor, and devoted member of the faculty, your long and illustrious career has honored the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and enriched the lives of many.

"We salute you for your continuing devotion to education and scholarship, and we rejoice on this happy occasion."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 25, 1998.


Topics: Faculty

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