DIAS and the physicist Walter Heitler

Walter Heitler Image Courtesy of Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies owes its reputation, in part, to German physicist Walter Heitler, who carried out fundamental research there in its early years.

It was a brave thing to do in 1940: Éamon de Valera, then taoiseach (prime minister) and later president of Ireland, established the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS) at a time when the country had very scarce resources. It seemed extravagant to spend money on an institute for pure research, with no immediate benefits in sight.
The DIAS was modelled on the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where Albert Einstein worked. De Valera wished to attract an equally famous scientist to the School of Theoretical Physics at DIAS, and invited the Austrian Nobel Prize winner Erwin Schrödinger. A year later, in 1941, Walter Heitler was appointed to a second professorship in the school.
Born in Karlsruhe in 1904, Heitler completed his doctorate in Munich in 1926, and had already worked with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen and Schrödinger in Zurich before he joined Max Born as an assistant in Göttingen. He completed his habilitation (qualification to become a professor) there in 1929. Because of his Jewish ancestry, Heitler fled to Bristol in 1933. After the German invasion of France in 1940, he was regarded as an “enemy alien” by the British and interned for a few months on the Isle of Man.

While Schrödinger was the DIAS’s celebrity scientist, Heitler worked away in the background, particularly in the early years, but later took over as Director of the School of Theoretical Physics, in 1946. He maintained links with colleagues all around the word, attracted them to Dublin for seminars, ensured that the Institute kept up to date with the latest research, supervised many students and published important research on quantum mechanics.
After the war, Heitler stayed in Dublin until 1949, when he accepted a professorship at the University of Zurich. He died in Zurich in 1981.

Ralf Sotscheck

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