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Katharine Way

20 February 2018

The nuclear physicist was a key contributor to the Manhattan Project and the leader of an effort to analyze and organize experimental results.

Katharine Way

Born on 20 February 1903 in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, Katharine Way was a nuclear physicist who performed important research during the Manhattan Project and helped analyze and systematize nuclear physics data. She earned a BS in physics from Columbia University in 1932 and a PhD in nuclear theory from the University of North Carolina in 1938. In 1942, after hearing rumors about important wartime work being done at the University of Chicago, Way called up her graduate adviser, John Wheeler, and got herself involved with the Manhattan Project. During the next three years, she examined the flux of neutrons and other nuclear fission products to aid in reactor design and developed the Way–Wigner approximation for fission product decay with future Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner. Despite her work on nuclear weapons, Way was not a proponent of their use—she signed physicist Leo Szilard’s petition to President Truman in July 1945 and coedited a 1946 book of essays that expressed scientists’ concerns about the atomic age. Late in her war work, Way began a project that would motivate the remainder of her career: analyzing and systematizing the results of nuclear physics experiments. She established the Nuclear Data Project in 1953 and helped launch the journals Nuclear Data Sheets and Atomic Data and Nuclear Data Tables. Way worked at the Clinton Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (which eventually became Oak Ridge National Laboratory), the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC, and Duke University. She died in 1995 at age 92; here is the obituary that appeared in Physics Today. (Photo credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Wheeler Collection)

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