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Obituary of Otto Bergmann (1925-2013)

10 September 2013

University of Vienna Dublin Institute Advanced Studies University of Adelaide Alabama Research Institute Advanced Studies George Washington University

Otto Bergmann, my father (A.B.) and our very good friend, died in Charlbury, England on May 26, 2013. Otto was born on February 7, 1925 in Vienna. His family was of the middle-class (his father was an accountant with the Vienna public transit system whose politics inclined toward Christian-Socialism). He experienced the turmoil of Austria and the effects of the Great Depression in the years before the outbreak of World War II. He may have been influenced by the intellectual and literary tradition that prevailed in Vienna during the interwar period. The scientific philosophy of idealistic positivism of Ernst Mach, Ludwig Boltzmann and Sigmund Freud was gaining currency and enthusiastically adopted by the members of the Vienna Circle. This informal institution, comprising such eminent intellectuals as educator Hans Hahn, mathematicians Richard von Mises and Kurt Gödel, philosophers. Ludwig Wittgenstein and Moritz Schlick, physicist Philipp Franck and others, actively promoted the empirical-positivist philosophy of Mach that had such a defining influence on the thinking of Einstein. On the other hand, the Great Depression, the long slide towards fascism and the Anchlüss with Germany in 1938 with the epidemic street warfare between young fascists and communists which characterised that time, left its imprint on his mind. He remembered his parents deciding not to attend Hitler’s triumphant speech at the Heldenplatz i comprising such eminent intellectuals as the education theorist Hans Hahn, mathematicians Richard von Mises and Kurt Gödel, philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Moritz Scn Vienna on March 15, 1938 and instead sending him to have his hair cut.

Otto attended the Catholic Gymnasium in Vienna and excelled in most subjects, but showed an early interest in mathematics and the physical sciences. Sometime after the war’s beginning he switched to a technical Gymnasium and obtained summer jobs with Telefunken and Arado (an important supplier of combat aircraft during the war).

In 1943, at age 18, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht in which, as a technical student, he was inevitably enlisted as a mechanical technician, seeing active service on both Western and Eastern fronts. He occasionally related his experiences of these times, some tragic, some amusing and some surreal. He remembered his intense relief when his unit was able to surrender to the Americans, rather than to the Russians, when the war drew to an end in May, 1945.

After the war, Otto decided to concentrate on theoretical physics and he began his studies at the University of Vienna. He was fascinated by the work of Einstein, Poincare and the Russian Alexander Friedmann on the relativity theory and its application to cosmology. The years immediately after Otto was born had seen the dawning of the quantum theory of Bohr, Heisenberg, Born, Schrödinger and Dirac and these developments also had a formative and lasting influence on his entire life. Both his choice of a profession to which he was to devote his life and his subsequent move to Australia and the United States can be seen as evidence of the effect of the horrific experience that he (and many others) had endured during this frightful time. Another consequence of this experience was his development of a powerful and characteristic desire for intellectual and material independence that remained with him for the rest of his days. After finishing his undergraduate studies he remained at the University of Vienna to complete his PhD under the tutelage of Paul Urban and Roman Sexl (his thesis was mainly concerned with Heisenberg’s S-matrix formulation and the relativistic treatment of the phase-shift analysis of neutron-proton scattering).

While still in Vienna, he was influenced by Hans Thirring and published work on virtual neutron states in heavy nuclei, the nuclear photo-effect in beryllium and also in the rapidly-evolving area of electron optics. Otto traveled to the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in 1950 and was employed there as a Scholar (post-doc) . At that time Erwin Schrödinger was director and Walter Heitler a professor at DIAS. In Dublin Otto attended seminars and lectures by Arthur Eddington and Paul Dirac, who were frequent visitors to the institute. He continued his work on nuclear phase shifts and Heisenberg’s S-matrix formulation and also on the polarization of light in Born’s electrodynamics.

From Dublin Otto moved on to the University of New England in Armidale, NSW, Australia where he published his work on small oscillations of the metric in the theory of general relativity, a study which was, very likely, inspired by his acquaintance with Cornelius Lanczos (who was also visited DIAS during Otto’s time there), the scalar theory of general relativity and the decay of the ?-meson (with Nicholas Baker…not to be confused with Niels Bohr who coincidently was assigned this name for secret visits to Los Alamos under war-time conditions). He then moved on to the department of mathematical physics of the University of Adelaide, SA. While there, in a sustained burst of creativity, he published papers on cosmic ray showers, conservation laws in classical electrodynamics, Corben’s formulation of the Dirac equation, ?-decay, relativistic heat equations, a field theory of gravitation and the space-time structure of the static spherically symmetric scalar field in general relativity (Reissner-Nördstrom geometry).

Subsequently, he relocated to the University of Alabama for a year and thence to RIAS (Research Institute of Advanced Studies, now incorporated into the Rand-McNally organization) in Baltimore in 1959, from whence he published his work on the Rainich problem of two-component spinors in the general theory of relativity. Otto Bergmann’s first and final permanent posting was in Washington DC, where in 1960 his services were secured by the Physics Department at the George Washington University. The death of his Australian wife (Joyce Mary nee Dunn) in 1977, a Professor of Classics at Howard University in DC, was a severe blow to Otto and his young family.

Otto remained at GWU until his retirement in 1998. While there, he continued his interests in a variety of topics and supervised the work of his many graduate students while publishing papers with them on the unified theory of relativity, central force motion without calculus (with one of us (WCP)), Mach’s Principle and elementary particles, the geometrical properties of conservation laws, interacting matter and radiation in homogeneous isotropic world models, geometrical descriptions of meson-baryon interactions, relativistic thermodynamics, cosmological solutions of Einstein’s equations with heat flow, a quantum mechanical version of his mentor Schrödinger’s “Uber die Umkehrung der Naturgezetze” (concerning time reversal of the laws of nature), and the electron and nuclear motion in Born’s theory of ideal crystals. Some idea of the profound catholicity of Otto Bergmann’s work and interests in mathematical physics may be gained from this less-than-complete list of his scientific interests. His science was imaginative but concrete and he had little interest in vapid algebraic discursions (exerei, as Einstein described this genre) and even less in its practitioners.

Otto was a strict but humorous teacher at GWU (to whom Oliver Goldsmith’s description of a Village Schoolmaster may be fairly applied, “Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught, the love he bore to learning was in fault.” For example, when explaining gravity to graduate students in his course on General Relativity he remarked that he once had had his leg broken as a consequence of the action of gravitation when following the instructions of an Air Force exercise manual to leap vertically while spinning the legs rapidly. He wryly commented that he should have read the succeeding paragraph which contained the information for a successful completion of the maneuver. He taught all subjects and at every level during his long sojourn at GWU. In particular, he was responsible for a magnificent course dealing with the history of physics from antique to contemporary times that is still taught at the university, attended and enjoyed by a wide spectrum of students ranging from poets to engineers. He was a prominent and much-valued participant in university life and his insightful contributions to a variety of department, college and university committees contributed much to the University’s academic and scholastic well-being.

Otto’s intellectual and social interests were by no means confined to physics. He loved classical music and his dogs. He delighted in his connection to the cultural events sponsored by the Austrian embassy in Washington. He was an easy target for the many appeals that arrived in his mail from deserving social groups and charitable organizations. His eclectic interests included an avid interest in photography, traveling (he spent sabbaticals in Vienna, Munich, Brisbane and Graz and, well into his seventies, visited Alaska and Australia) and an uninhibited joy in Viennese cuisine, good wines and a developed appreciation of the best Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, none of which he ever indulged excessively. He was conservative in his thought and political inclinations but open-handed and sympathetic to the down-trodden and abused of mankind. He was much admired by his friends at the university, in the German-Austrian community of the United States, by his neighbors and by his friends throughout the world for these qualities and for his Danny Kay-like humor and pleasantness. Otto was a good friend and a caring father. All three of the signatories of this essay learned a lot of physics from him and much about life and friendship.

He is survived by his daughter and son, by five grand-children and by a host of saddened friends and admirers in the university and elsewhere. God-speed, Otto.

Anton Bergmann (Bonn, Germany)

Eamon Harper (Alexandria, Va)

W. C. Parke (George Washington University, Washington, DC).

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