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Walter Heitler

Walter Heitler
Walter Heinrich Heitler (1904-1981)
Born (1904-01-02)January 2, 1904
Karlsruhe, German Empire
Died November 15, 1981(1981-11-15) (aged 77)
Zollikon, Meilen, Switzerland
Nationality German
Fields Quantum mechanics
Institutions Georg-August University of Göttingen
University of Bristol
Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies
University of Zurich
Alma mater Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich
Doctoral advisor Karl Herzfeld
Other academic advisors Arnold Sommerfeld
Notable students Sigurd Zienau
Influenced Linus Pauling
Notable awards Max Planck Medal (1968)
Marcel Benoist Prize (1969)
Fellow of the Royal Society[1]

Walter Heinrich Heitler (German: ; 2 January 1904 – 15 November 1981) was a German physicist who made contributions to quantum electrodynamics and quantum field theory. He brought chemistry under quantum mechanics through his theory of valence bonding.


  • Education 1
  • Career 2
  • Notable Quote 3
  • Honors 4
  • Books 5
    • Physics 5.1
    • Science and religion 5.2
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7


In 1922, Heitler began his study of Habilitation, under Born, in 1929, and then remained as a Privatdozent until 1933.[4] In that year, he was let go by the university because he was Jewish.[5]

At the time Heitler received his doctorate, three Institutes for Theoretical Physics formed a consortium which worked on the key problems of the day, such as atomic and molecular structure, and exchanged both scientific information and personnel in their scientific quests. These institutes were located at the LMU, under Arnold Sommerfeld, the University of Göttingen, under Max Born, and the University of Copenhagen, under Niels Bohr. Furthermore, Werner Heisenberg and Born had just recently published their trilogy of papers which launched the matrix mechanics formulation of quantum mechanics.[6][7][8] Also, in early 1926, Erwin Schrödinger, at the University of Zurich, began to publish his quintet of papers which launched the wave mechanics formulation of quantum mechanics[9][10][11][12] and showed that the wave mechanics and matrix mechanics formulations were equivalent.[13] These papers immediately put the personnel at the leading theoretical physics institutes onto applying these new tools to understanding atomic and molecular structure. It was in this environment that Heitler went on his Rockefeller Foundations Fellowship, leaving LMU and within a period of two years going to do research and study with the leading figures of the day in theoretical physics, Bohr's personnel in Copenhagen, Schrödinger in Zurich, and Born in Göttingen.

In Zurich, with Fritz London, Heitler applied the new quantum mechanics to deal with the saturable, nondynamic forces of attraction and repulsion, i.e., exchange forces, of the hydrogen molecule. Their valence bond treatment of this problem,[14] was a landmark in that it brought chemistry under quantum mechanics. Furthermore, their work greatly influenced chemistry through Linus Pauling, who had just received his doctorate and on a Guggenheim Fellowship visited Heitler and London in Zurich, as Pauling spent much of his career studying the nature of the chemical bond. The application of quantum mechanics to chemistry would be a prominent theme in Heitler's career.[15][16][17]

While Heitler was at Göttingen, Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. With the rising prominence of anti-Semitism under Hitler, Born took it upon himself to take the younger Jewish generation under his wing.[18] In doing so, Born arranged for Heitler to get a position that year as a Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, with Nevill Francis Mott.[19][20]


At Bristol, Heitler was a Research Fellow of the Academic Assistance Council, in the H. H. Wills Physics Laboratory. At Bristol, among other things, he worked on quantum field theory and quantum electrodynamics on his own, as well as in collaboration with other scientific refugees from Hitler, such as Hans Bethe and Herbert Fröhlich, who also left Germany in 1933.[21]

With Bethe, he published a paper on pair production of gamma rays in the Coulomb field of an atomic nucleus, in which they developed the Bethe-Heitler formula for Bremsstrahlung.[22][23]

Heitler also contributed to the understanding of cosmic rays,[24][25] as well as predicted the existence of the electrically neutral pi meson.[26]

In 1936, Heitler published his major work on quantum electrodynamics, The Quantum Theory of Radiation, which marked the direction for future developments in quantum theory.[27] The book appeared in many editions and printings, even being translated in Russian.

After the fall of France in 1940, Heitler was briefly interned on the Isle of Man for several months.[20][28]

Heitler remained at Bristol eight years, until 1941, when he became a professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, which was arranged there by Erwin Schrödinger, Director of the School for Theoretical Physics.[28][29][30]

At Dublin, Heitler's work with H. W. Peng on radiation damping theory and the meson scattering process resulted in the Heitler-Peng integral equation.[31][32][33]

During the 1942-1943 academic year, Heitler gave a course on elementary wave mechanics, during which W. S. E. Hickson took notes and prepared a finished copy. These notes were the basis for Heitler's book Elementary Wave Mechanics: Introductory Course of Lectures, first published in 1943. A new edition was published as Elementary Wave Mechanics in 1945. This version was revised and republished many times, as well as being translated into French and Italian and published in 1949 and in German in 1961. A further revised version appeared as Elementary Wave Mechanics With Applications to Quantum Chemistry in 1956, as well as in German in 1961.

Schrödinger resigned as Director of the School for Theoretical Physics in 1946, but stayed at Dublin, whereupon Heitler became Director. Heitler stayed at Dublin until 1949, when he accepted a position as Ordinarius Professor for Theoretical Physics and Director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Zurich, where he remained until 1974, when he retired.[5][29][30]

In 1958, Heitler held the Lorentz Chair for Theoretical Physics at the University of Leiden.[34]

While in Zurich, after some years, he began writing on the philosophical relationship of science to religion.[35] His books were published in German, English, and French.[29][30]

Notable Quote

  • Physics eats chemistry with a spoon.




  • Walter Heitler Elementary Wave Mechanics: Introductory Course of Lectures Notes taken and prepared by W.S.E. Hickson (Oxford, 1943)
  • Walter Heitler Elementary Wave Mechanics (Oxford, 1945, 1946, 1948, 1950)
  • Walter Heitler The Quantum Theory of Radiation (Clarendon Press, 1936,[38] 1944, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1953, 1954, 1957, 1960, 1966, 1970)
    • Walter Heitler The Quantum Theory of Radiation (Dover, 1984)
  • Walter Heinrich Heitler 14 Offprints: 1928-1947 (1947)
  • Walter Heitler Eléments de Mécanique Ondulatoire (Presses Universitaires de France, PUF, Paris, 1949, 1964)
  • Walter Heitler Elementi di Meccanica Ondulatoria con presentazione di R.Ciusa (Zuffi, Bologna,1949)
  • Walter Heitler Elementary Wave Mechanics With Applications to Quantum Chemistry (Oxford University, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1969)
  • Walter Heitler “The Quantum Theory of Radiation [Russian Translation]“ (Moscow, 1956)
  • Walter Heitler Lectures on Problems Connected with the Finite Size of Elementary Particles (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Lectures on mathematics and physics. Physics) (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, 1961)
  • Walter Heitler and Klaus Müller Elementare Wellenmechanik (Vieweg, 1961)
  • Walter Heitler Elementare Wellenmechanik. Mit Anwendung auf die Quantenchemie. (Vieweg Friedr. & Sohn Ver, 1961)
  • Walter Heitler Wahrheit und Richtigkeit in den exakten Wissenschaften. Abhandlungen der mathematisch- naturwissenschaftlichen Klasse. Jahrgang 1972. Nr. 3. (Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur. Mainz, Verlag der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Kommission bei Franz Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden, 1972)
  • Walter Heitler Über die Komplementarität von lebloser und lebender Materie. Abhandlungen der Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlichen Klasse, Jahrg. 1976, Nr. 1 (Mainz, Verlag der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Kommission bei F. Steiner, 1976)

Science and religion

  • Walter Heitler Der Mensch und die naturwissenschaftliche Erkenntnis (Vieweg Friedr. & Sohn Ver, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1984)
  • Walter Heitler Man and Science (Oliver and Boyd, 1963)[39]
  • Walter Heitler Die Frage nach dem Sinn der Evolution (Herder, 1969)
  • Walter Heitler Naturphilosophische Streifzüge (Vieweg Friedr. & Sohn Ver, 1970, 1984)
  • W. Heitler Naturwissenschaft ist Geisteswissenschaft (Zürich : Verl. die Waage, 1972)
  • K. Rahner, H.R. Schlette, B. Welte, R. Affemann, D. Savramis, W. Heitler Gott in dieser Zeit (C. H. Beck, 1972) ISBN 3-406-02484-X
  • Walter Heitler Die Natur und das Göttliche (Klett & Balmer; 1. Aufl edition, 1974) ISBN 978-3-7206-9001-0
  • Walter Heitler Gottesbeweise? Und weitere Vorträge (1977) ISBN 978-3-264-90100-9
  • Walter Heitler La Nature et Le Divin (A la Baconniere, 1977)
  • Walter Heitler Schöpfung, die Öffnung der Naturwissenschaft zum Göttlichen (Verlag der Arche, 1979) ISBN 978-3-7160-1663-3
  • Walter Heitler Schöpfung als Gottesbeweis. Die Öffnung der Naturwissenschaft zum Göttlichen (1979)


  1. ^ a b  
  2. ^ Walter Heitler at the Mathematics Genealogy Project – Dr. phil. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. 1926 Dissertation title: Zur Theorie konzentrierter Lösungen.
  3. ^ Karl Herzfeld
  4. ^ Author Catalog: Heitler – American Philosophical Society
  5. ^ a b Uta Schäfer-Richter, Jörg Klein (1992), p. 93
  6. ^ W. Heisenberg, Über quantentheoretische Umdeutung kinematischer und mechanischer Beziehungen, Zeitschrift für Physik 33 879-893, 1925 (received July 29, 1925). [English translation in: B. L. van der Waerden, editor, Sources of Quantum Mechanics (Dover Publications, 1968) ISBN 0-486-61881-1 (English title: Quantum-Theoretical Re-interpretation of Kinematic and Mechanical Relations).]
  7. ^ M. Born and P. Jordan, Zur Quantenmechanik, Zeitschrift für Physik 34 858-888, 1925 (received September 27, 1925). [English translation in: B. L. van der Waerden, editor, Sources of Quantum Mechanics (Dover Publications, 1968) ISBN 0-486-61881-1]
  8. ^ M. Born, W. Heisenberg, and P. Jordan, Zur Quantenmechanik II, Zeitschrift für Physik 35 557-615, 1925 (received November, 1925). [English translation in: B. L. van der Waerden, editor, Sources of Quantum Mechanics (Dover Publications, 1968) ISBN 0-486-61881-1]
  9. ^ Erwin Schrödinger (From the German) Quantization as an Eigenvalue Problem (First Communication), Annalen der Physik 79 (4) 361-376, 1926. [English translation in Gunter Ludwig Wave Mechanics 94-105 (Pergamon Press, 1968) ISBN 0-08-203204-1]
  10. ^ Erwin Schrödinger (From the German) Quantization as an Eigenvalue Problem (Second Communication), Annalen der Physik 79 (6) 489-527, 1926. [English translation in Gunter Ludwig Wave Mechanics 106-126 (Pergamon Press, 1968) ISBN 0-08-203204-1]
  11. ^ Erwin Schrödinger (From the German) Quantization as an Eigenvalue Problem (Third Communication), Annalen der Physik 80 (13) 437-490, 1926.
  12. ^ Erwin Schrödinger (From the German) Quantization as an Eigenvalue Problem (Fourth Communication), Annalen der Physik 81 (18) 109-139, 1926. [English translation in Gunter Ludwig Wave Mechanics 151-167 (Pergamon Press, 1968) ISBN 0-08-203204-1]
  13. ^ Erwin Schrödinger (From the German) On the Relationship of the Heisenberg-Born-Jordan Quantum Mechanics to Mine, Annalen der Physik 79 (8) 734-756, 1926. [English translation in Gunter Ludwig Wave Mechanics 127-150 (Pergamon Press, 1968) ISBN 0-08-203204-1]
  14. ^ Walter Heitler and Fritz London Wechselwirkung neutraler Atome und homöopolare Bindung nach der Quantenmechanik, Zeitschrift für Physik 44 (1927) 455-472.
  15. ^ Mehra, Volume 5, Part 1, 2001, p. 312.
  16. ^ Pauling – Oregon State University
  17. ^ Jammer, 1966, p. 343.
  18. ^ The younger generation of Jewish physicists included Walter Heitler, Lothar Nordheim, Fritz London, and Edward Teller. See Greenspan, 2005, p. 183.
  19. ^ Greenspan, 2005, p. 183.
  20. ^ a b Mott – Bristol Physics in the 1930s
  21. ^ Fröhlich, Heitler, Kemmer.
  22. ^ Hans Bethe and Walter Heitler On the Stopping of Fast Particles and on the Creation of Positive Electrons, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A Volume 146, Issue 856, pp. 83-112, 1934.
  23. ^ DTIC – Bethe-Heitler formula for Bremsstrahlung
  24. ^ H. J. Bhabha and W. Heitler The Passage of Fast Electrons and the Theory of Cosmic Showers, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A Volume 159 (1937) 432.
  25. ^ Homi Jahangir Bhabha
  26. ^ H. Fröhlich, W. Heitler, and N. Kemmer On the Nuclear Forces and the Magnetic Moments of the Neutron and the Proton, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A Mathematical and Physical Sciences Volume 166, No. 924 (May 4, 1938), pp. 154-177.
  27. ^ Moore, 1992, p. 376.
  28. ^ a b Moore, 1992, p. 368.
  29. ^ a b c Heitler in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  30. ^ a b c Heitler – Irish University Science
  31. ^ W. Heitler and H. W. Peng Anomalous Scattering of Mesons, Phys. Rev. 62 (1942) 81 – 82, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin Ireland, Received 22 May 1942.
  32. ^ W. Heitler and H. W. Peng, Proc. Camb. Phil. Soc. 38 (1942), 296.
  33. ^ J. Hamilton, W. Heitler, and H. W. Peng Theory of Cosmic-Ray Mesons Physical Review Volume 64, Issue 3-4, pp. 78-94, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, Ireland.
  34. ^ Lorentz Chair – 1958 Walter Heitler
  35. ^ Moore, 1992, p. 445.
  36. ^ Members – Royal Irish Academy
  37. ^ Prize Recipients
  38. ^  
  39. ^ Rosen, D. (31 October 1963). by W. Heitler"Man and Science"Review of . New Scientist (363): 281. 


  • Key Participants: Walter Heitler - Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History
  • Interview with Walter Heitler by John Heilbron (March 18, 1963. Archives for the History of Quantum Physics)
  • L. O'Raifeartaigh and G. Rasche: Walter Heitler 1904-81, in Creators of Mathematics, The Irish Connection, ed. Ken Houston, University College Dublin Press, 2000.
  • Nancy Thorndike Greenspan, "The End of the Certain World: The Life and Science of Max Born" (Basic Books, 2005) ISBN 0-7382-0693-8.
  • Mehra, Jagdish, and Helmut Rechenberg The Historical Development of Quantum Theory. Volume 5 Erwin Schrödinger and the Rise of Wave Mechanics. Part 1 Schrödinger in Vienna and Zurich 1887-1925. (Springer, 2001) ISBN 0-387-95179-2
  • Jammer, Max The Conceptual Development of Quantum Mechanics (McGraw-Hill, 1966)
  • Moore, Walter Schrödinger: Life and Thought (Cambridge, 1992) ISBN 0-521-43767-9
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