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George E. Uhlenbeck

George Eugene Uhlenbeck (December 6, 1900 – October 31, 1988) was a Dutch-American theoretical physicist

Background and education

George Uhlenbeck was the son of Eugenius and Anne Beeger Uhlenbeck. He attended the Hogere Burgerschool (High School) in The Hague, from which he graduated in 1918.

Subsequently entered Delft University of Technology as a student in chemical engineering. During the next year, he transferred to the Leiden University, to study physics and mathematics, and he earned his bachelor's degree in 1920. Uhlenbeck was then admitted by Ehrenfest (a student of Boltzmann's) to the Wednesday evening physics colloquium in Leiden. Ehrenfest became the most important scientific influence in his life. From 1922 to 1925 Uhlenbeck was the tutor of the younger son of the Dutch ambassador in Rome. While there, he attended lectures by Tullio Levi-Civita and Vito Volterra and met his longtime friend, Enrico Fermi. In 1923, Uhlenbeck received his Master's degree from Leiden.
He returned to Leiden in 1925 to become Ehrenfest's assistant. Ehrenfest assigned him to work with his graduate student, Samuel Goudsmit for a quick update on "what was currently happening in physics". In mid-September 1925, Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit discovered the spin on the electron. In 1927 Uhlenbeck earned his Ph.D. degree under Ehrenfest with his thesis titled: "Over Statistische Methoden in de Theorie der Quanta" ("On Statistical Methods in the Quantum Theory" ).

Uhlenbeck married Else Ophorst in Arnhem, Netherlands in August 1927. He received a doctorate from the Leiden University in the same year. As a graduate student in 1925, he and Samuel Goudsmit introduced the concept of electron spin, which posits an intrinsic angular momentum for all electrons.


In 1927, Uhlenbeck took a position as an instructor in physics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He stayed there until 1935, when he succeeded H. A. Kramers as a professor of theoretical physics in Utrecht. During his eight years in Ann Arbor, Uhlenbeck organized the noted "Summerschool" in theoretical physics.
In 1938, Uhlenbeck spent half a year as visiting professor at Columbia University in New York City, and then he returned to Ann Arbor as a professor of theoretical physics during the next year.
During part of World War II, from 1943 through 1945, Uhlenbeck led a theory group at the Radiation Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts which was doing radar research. In 1945, he returned to Ann Arbor, where he was named the Henry Cahart Professor of Physics in 1954. He remained in Ann Arbor until 1960, when he joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now the Rockefeller University) in New York City as a professor and member of the Institute.

Retirement and death

He retired in 1971, but he remained scientifically active until the early 1980s.
Uhlenbeck died on October 31, 1988, in Boulder, Colorado at the age of 87 years.