Memorial Tributes Volume 20
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PublisherNational Academies Press
ReleasedOctober 1, 2016
Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 20

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  • HENDRIK B.G. CASIMIR 1909–2000


    HENDRIK BRUGT GERHARD CASIMIR, a brilliant scientist and leader of industrial research, died on May 4, 2000, at the age of 90 in Heeze, the Netherlands, after a brief illness. My account of Casimir’s work and life builds on my ear- lier paper in Physics Today [1] and an article in the New York Times [2]. It is guided and complemented by my interactions as a member of Philips Research with Henk Casimir.

    Born in the Hague on July 15, 1909, Casimir was endowed with a strong body, fabulous memory, and great intelligence.He started his study at Leiden University in 1926. As a student of Paul Ehrenfest, he studied theoretical physics.

    He also spent 18 months of his graduate education in Copenhagen as a student of Ehrenfest’s close friend Niels Bohr. Casimir’s PhD thesis, which he completed in 1931, dealt with the quantum mechanics of a rigid spinning body and the group theory of the rotations of molecules. After earning his PhD, Casimir became active in the young field of quantum mechanics.

    For example, he used Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics to establish a relation between natural line width and radiation damping. He also used the time-dependent Schrödinger equation to treat the diffusion of an alpha particle from a Gamow potential well. And he proposed the hypothesis that the nucleus contains an electrical quadrupole, thereby accounting for the hyperfine structure of europium. Casimir spent 1932–1933 with Wolfgang Pauli in Zürich, an experience that had a lasting and far-reaching influence on him.

    He loved to recount his relationship with Pauli and would include anecdotes from that period in most of his seminars in later life. After Ehrenfest’s untimely death in 1933, Casimir returned to Leiden, where he continued to be active in both physics and mathematics.

    With the physicist Evert Gorter, he worked out the thermodynamic theory of superconductive states. With the mathematician Bartel van der Waerden, he proved the complete reducibility of the representations of semisimple Lie groups. In addition, he worked on the thermodynamic interpretation of paramagnetic relaxation phenomena with Frits du Pré.

    This work formed the basis for the introduction of the notion that the temperature of a magnetic system is different from the lattice temperature. In 1938, in addition to his regular duties as conservator (Dutch for curator) of the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory, he became a part-time, one-day-a-week physics professor at Leiden University.

    At the time he was actively studying both heat conduction and electrical conduction, and contributed to the attainment of millikelvin temperatures. In 1942, during World War II, Casimir moved to the Philips Research Laboratories in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, because of the pressure of the German occupation forces on Leiden University as an active research center.

    He kept his position as professor at Leiden until 1977 and used it to remain active as a scientist and PhD counselor for many coworkers at Philips Research. In 1945 he wrote a well-known paper on Lars Onsager’s principle of microscopic reversibility. Once the war ended, Casimir decided to stay at Philips Research as it offered in his view the best opportunities for good physics research in the Netherlands and he didn’t want to emigrate as part of the “brain drain” [3]. In 1946 Gilles Holst, founder of Philips Research, retired and Casimir was appointed one of the company’s three research directors.

    In 1948 he published a seminal paper with Dik Polder on the influence of retardation on the London–van der Waals forces [4]. The authors imagined two parallel metal plates placed close together in a complete vacuum, with the following interpretation in quantum mechanics: Due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, vacuum is filled by zero-point fluctuation electromagnetic waves.

    In the constrained space between the two parallel metal plates fewer zero-point fluctuation waves can arise than outside of the parallel plates where there is more “volume”; between the plates only short wave-length waves can exist, whereas outside all waves exist.

    The net effect is an attraction between the plates with an inverse dependence on the fourth power of the distance between the plates. What is now known as the Casimir force was convincingly demonstrated experimentally in 1996 by Steve Lamoreaux [5] at Los Alamos National Laboratories. Since Lamoreaux’s initial measurement this dependence has been verified with better and better accuracy and applied in other fields of physics such as the wetting of surfaces and the theory of black holes. Casimir had an infinite desire for simplification and simple understanding.

    The calculation of the weak force, though, is a high form (6th order) of quantum mechanical perturbation theory and covers many pages of hard mathematical (and physics) work involving the cancellation of several quasi-­ infinities. Casimir quickly realized, however, that the essence of the effect could be grasped in a model in which electric dipoles in matter interact with the electric field rather than with the vector potential [6]. All quasi-infinities drop out, the interpretation in terms of zero-point fluctuations becomes straightforward, and the calculation becomes a one pager.

    In 1957 Casimir was appointed a member of the board of management of Philips, in charge of all research activities of Philips worldwide. He contributed to their expansion, while remaining scientifically active. An interesting example is his work with Chris Bouwkamp on the representation of the field of spatially distributed electrical currents into a series of multi­pole fields, which became the basis for extensive work on antennas with arbitrary current distributions. In this period he also laid the foundation for what came to be known as the science–technology spiral.

    Technology uses science with a time delay of, say, 10 years; science in turn is driven by new developments in technology; and both progress together. For example, radio lamps made it possible for new aspects of atomic and nuclear physics to be researched. The resulting science–technology spiral is largely responsible for the great technological progress of the 20th century. A much more comprehensive description of Casimir’s views (and excellent reading) is in his autobiography Haphazard Reality: Half a Century of Science (Harper & Row, 1983).

    The Philips labs had been isolated from the rest of the world during World War II. Consequently, catching up in science and technology was paramount. With that aim, Casimir strongly cultivated contacts with colleagues from other scientific centers and industry all over the world. In this effort, he drew on his impressive fluency in several languages and his deep conviction that “research is essentially an international activity, and…repetition and duplication are useless!” At Philips he did not put many restricting boundary conditions on suggestions for programs of work, provided they were potentially of interest to Philips and not merely, as he put it, “advanced classroom experiments.”

    He stimulated people with knowledgeable hints for progress in widely diverging fields, avoiding short-term interference with their affairs. His abundant knowledge of science (and arts!) together with his extraordinary capacity for dissecting the most intricate problems, often by the use of amusing metaphors, made conversation with him on the bottlenecks in scientific progress not only entertaining but also effective. In 1973, he was the obvi- ous choice as the first president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he held this almost full-time job until 1978.

    He contributed substantially to an atmosphere at the Philips research facility that was fertile and productive. After his retirement in 1972, he continued to foment research by coming into the laboratory in Eindhoven and asking young people, “What is new in physics and what can we learn from it?” As a young theoretical physicist at Philips, I was greatly stimulated by such conversations. Let me give you one anecdotal example.

    Together with Polder and Quirin Vrehen, I addressed in 1979 the 25-year-old [7] problem of the onset of superfluorescence (giant collective fast emission from initially excited [inverted] atoms with no classical dipole moments). It was solved [8] in terms of a kick-off of spontaneous emission and dipole formation by the zero-point fluctuations of the electromagnetic field. Casimir of course was very interested in this.

    And I owe it to his com- ments (I was grilled!) during one of his visits that I finally published the correct understanding [9] of the transition of superfluorescence to amplified spontaneous emission. Henk was then 7 years retired from Philips! Casimir was active on the Dutch and European physics and industry scenes. He was involved in the founding of the European Physical Society in 1968 and served as president from 1972 to 1975. He was also one of the founders and the first head of the European Industrial Research Management Association (EIRMA).

    In 1965 the OECD hosted the European/ North American Conference on Research Management, which he chaired. The conference concluded with a recommendation to form a European body devoted to industrial research management. The following year, EIRMA was born as an indepen- dent not-for-profit organization with 32 industry members and Casimir as its founding president. He was awarded many prizes and honors, among them the 1982 Wilhelm Exner Medal and in 1985 the Matteucci Medal.

    Most recent was the American Physical Society’s George E. Pake Prize (1999) for outstanding scientific and industrial research leadership. Hendrik Casimir loved strenuous walking in mountainous areas, eating good food, and playing the violin. With his extraordinary memory, he recited by heart poems to his children and used poems in his lectures. He loved a good chat with people from almost any discipline, particularly the arts or literature. He visibly and deeply loved his wife Josina Jonker, a fellow student in the early days at Leiden university, and their five children. They formed a fine family and have nine grandchildren. His wife died at the age of 100 in 2011. With the death of Henk Casimir, we lost one of the most gifted scientists and industrial research leaders of the 20th century.

    I feel privileged to have known Henk Casimir and I am grateful for what I learned from him about both science and innovation. I am indebted to his son Rommert for comments on the first version of this tribute.

    Works Cited
    [1] Schuurmans M. 2000. Hendrik Brugt Gerhard Casimir. Physics Today (September):80.
    [2] New York Times. 2000. Hendrik Casimir, 90, theorist in study of quantum mechanics. October 13.
    [3] Casimir HBG. 1984. Haphazard Reality: Half a Century of Science. New York: Harper and Row.
    [4] Casimir HBG, Polder D. 1948. The influence of etardationr on the London–van der Waals forces. Physical Review 73(4):360–372.
    [5] Lamoreaux SK. 1997. Demonstration of the Casimir force in the 0.6 to 6μm range. Physical Review Letters 78:5–8.
    [6] Power EA, Zienau S. 1959. Coulomb gauge in non-relativistic quan- tum electro-dynamics and the shape of spectral lines. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 251:427.
    [7] Dicke RH. 1954. Coherence in spontaneous radiation processes. Physical Review 93:99.
    [8] Schuurmans MFH, Vrehen QHF, Polder D, Gibbs H. 1981. Superfluorescence. Advances in Atomic and Molecular Physics 17:167–228 and references therein.
    [9] Schuurmans MFH, Polder D. 1979. Superfluorescence and amplified spontaneous emission: A unified theory. Physics Letters 72A:306–307.

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