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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

In Memoriam: Geoffrey Chew

Geoffrey Chew

On the evening of April 12, 2019, esteemed physicist Dr. Geoffrey Chew passed away at the age of 94.

Chew was born in Washington, D.C. in 1924. After receiving his B.S. in Physics from George Washington University in 1944, he was recommended by one of his professors to join Edward Teller’s team on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Under the guidance of Teller, Chew worked on a small team of assistants performing calculations to develop the hydrogen bomb. In a 2016 interview with AHF, Chew recalls, “Oppenheimer had decided that the idea of fusion was too far distant. It was so undeveloped that it wouldn’t compete for priority with nuclear fission. But he allowed Teller to carry on research on the fusion possibility with a team of which I was one member. We sat and just punched hand computers. The electronic computers didn’t exist at that point.”

On July 16, 1945, Chew witnessed the Trinity Test with a few other scientists from a nearby mountain. He remembered the moment the explosion reached the group: “There was this incredible flash. Of course, everybody turned around and watched and saw this mushroom cloud business, which has become so famous. The sound took quite some time to get there. It was a very significant interval before the sound of the explosion reached us.”

In 1948, Chew received his doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Chicago under the direction of Enrico Fermi. As Fermi’s student, Chew researched developments in nuclear theory. He was hired to teach physics at the University of California, Berkeley in 1957, where he made significant contributions to the field of quantum mechanics with his ideas of “nuclear democracy,” and the “bootstrap theory” of strong interactions.  

Chew became professor emeritus in 1991 and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the Lawrence Prize in 1969 and Majorana Prize in 2008. Over the course of his career, Chew mentored over 70 Ph.D. students, including Nobel laureates David Gross and John H. Schwartz.

For more about Chew and his involvement with the Manhattan Project, you can watch his interview on the Voices of the Manhattan Project website and visit his profile on the AHF website.