Oct. 19, 2010

Reinhard Oehme, influential theoretical physicist, dies at 82

Celebrated theoretical physicist Professor Reinhard Oehme, most famous for his insight into the violation of symmetry in physics, recently died at the age of 82.

He died sometime between Thursday, September 29, and Monday, October 4, at his home in Hyde Park.

Oehme, who taught at the University for forty years, first arrived through a recommendation from Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg to Enrico Fermi, joining the Enrico Fermi Institute of Nuclear Studies as a research associate in 1954.

The winners of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, credited Oehme with providing crucial insight into their work that dealt with the violation of symmetry in physics. They proposed that the laws of physics do not obey the conservation of parity—that laws of physics can essentially tell left from right.

In a letter to Yang, Oehme pointed out that if one element of symmetry in the equation was violated, other elements of symmetry would be violated as well. Oehme’s input was included in their award-winning paper and his insight led to further experimentation in particle symmetry.

Oehme, who was born on January 26, 1928 in Wiesbaden, Germany, attended Frankfurt University, from which he graduated in 1948. He received his doctorate in 1951 from the University of Gottingen in Germany, where he studied under Heisenberg.

Oehme married Mafala Pisani in 1952 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, while she was working as a secretary for physics Nobel laureate Max von Laue. They were married for over half a century. Pisani died in 2004.

While at the Fermi Institute, Oehme published a number of works before joining the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in 1956. It was there that he helped formulate the “Edge of the Wedge” theorem, now used extensively in both math and physics.

Returning to the U of C in 1958, Oehme joined the physics faculty and retired forty years later in 1998. He received a number of awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 1964, the Humboldt Award in 1974, and a Fellowship of the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science in 1977 and 1988.

Oehme left no known survivors. Plans for a private funeral and memorial service are pending.