Jack Steinberger, Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the muon

Hans Jakob Steinberger (Bad Kissingen, Bavaria, Weimar Republic, May 25, 1921 - Geneva, Switzerland, December 12, 2020)

Steinberger was born into a modest Jewish family with limited financial resources. His father, Ludwig Steinberger, worked as a cattle dealer, and his mother, who had received a university education – unusual in her time – helped support the family economy by giving private English and French classes to tourists who came to the spas in the region.

In 1934, before the laws decreed by the unstoppable Nazi party that prohibited young Jews from pursuing higher education, Steinberger, together with his older brother, were sent by their parents to the United States thanks to the charity of some American institutions. After passing through Washington and New York, they finally settled in Chicago at the home of an agrarian merchant named Barnett Farroll. In 1938, thanks to Farroll's mediation, Steinberger's parents and his younger brother were able to join them in Chicago, thus escaping the Holocaust.

Steinberger completed his secondary studies at the Trier Institute where he already demonstrated a great capacity for science. Later he began a career in Chemical Engineering at the Illinois Military School of Technology (current Higher School of Technology) at the same time that he worked to pay for his studies and contribute to the delicate family economy. However, this intense pace of life forced him to attend night classes until, due to his excellent grades, he was awarded a scholarship to the University of Chicago. He finally earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry in 1942.

That same year, Steinberger enlisted in the army and was assigned to the Radiation Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was there that he began to enter the world of physics, becoming fascinated after attending courses taught by brilliant researchers such as Edward Mills Purcell or Julian Seymour Schwinger. This led him to study physics at the University of Chicago (at the end of the war) under the tutelage of the extraordinary Italian scientist Enrico Fermi.

Although his first adventures in the field of physics leaned towards Theoretical Physics, he soon found his way into Experimental Physics. Steinberger placed at the center of his research a problem centered on subatomic elementary particles called muons. This study, which lasted approximately 1 year, enabled him to obtain a PhD in Physical Sciences in 1948.

Subsequently, Steinberger worked at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, moving a year later (1949) to the Berkeley Laboratory where he perfected his studies on subatomic particles and obtained important findings about the pion.

Leon Lederman, Jack Steinberger and Melvin Schwartz

In 1950 he moved to the Nevis Laboratory of Columbia University where he made some of his most valuable contributions to the knowledge of elementary particles. It was in Nevis, where he collaborated (between 1960 and 1962) with Leon Lederman and Melvin Schwartz in a brilliant work for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1988.

The work carried out by these three physicists empirically demonstrated that there were at least two different types of neutrinos: one associated with the electron and the other with the muon. His experiments culminated in the discovery of the neutrino muon.

After almost 20 years linked to Columbia University, Steinberger returned to Europe in 1968, joining the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). Here he actively collaborated in the construction of a LEP particle accelerator. In 1986 he moved to the University of Pisa as a part-time professor and researcher without abandoning his research for CERN which ended in 1995.

Steinberger was a member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences, the European Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Science Association of the United States of America. In addition, he was awarded the National Medal of Science awarded in 1988 by the United States Government. He was awarded honorary degrees by numerous universities around the world including the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Steinberger published several books that collect his discoveries and theories. Among them are Two Neutrinos and High Energy Neutrino Physics, Preparation of Lep Detector.

Throughout the last few years he enjoyed learning cosmology and astrophysics. Jack Steinberger passed away on December 12, 2020 at his home in Geneva at the age of 99.

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