Edward Condon was a prominent American physicist and a key figure in the development of quantum mechanics, nuclear physics and spectroscopy. He served as a professor at prominent universities including Princeton before becoming Director of the National Bureau of Standards.
Condon also played a role in the development of the first atomic bomb as a consultant on the Manhattan Project during World War Two, and later became known for his controversial memo on UFO’s which concluded there was no scientific evidence to support their existence.
Here we explore more about Edward Condon’s career and his contributions to science.
Early Life and Education
Edward Condon was born in Alamogordo, New Mexico on 2 March 1902. He was the youngest of four children and grew up in a family that was deeply interested in science, conducting experiments in his basement as a child. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in physics in 1924 and went on to earn a PhD in physics from Princeton University in 1928.
After earning his PhD, Condon became an instructor in physics at Princeton, rising through the ranks to become a full professor by 1937.
Quantum Mechanics and the development of Condon-Shortley notation
Condon’s early research focused on the development of quantum mechanics, which was a revolutionary new theory of physics that explained the behaviour of matter and energy on a very small scale. He was one of the leading experts in the field and made several significant contributions to its development.
Condon was particularly interested in the application of quantum mechanics to the study of atomic and molecular physics. (He also helped to establish the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which is still in operation today).
While at Princeton, in 1935 Condon developed a notation system for the representation of atomic states known as the Condon-Shortley notation, which helped to advance the understanding of atomic structure and played a crucial role in the development of modern physics. The notation is still widely used today, particularly for describing the angular momentum of atoms.
Consultant for the Manhattan Project
During World War Two, Condon was recruited to work as a member of the Manhattan Project, a top-secret government project to develop the first atomic bomb. However, within six weeks, he resigned as a result of conflicts about security with General Leslie R. Groves, the project’s military leader.
Condon then worked as a consultant for the project from 1943-1945, providing expertise in nuclear physics. He was responsible for overseeing the design and construction of the instrumentation used to measure the properties of the nuclear reactions taking place during the project, and also worked on the development of the detonator for the bomb.
His work helped to lay the foundation for the development of nuclear energy and contributed to the eventual end of the war. However, whilst Condon was a member of the committee that recommended the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, after the war, he became a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons and worked to promote disarmament.
Director of the National Bureau of Standards
In 1945, Condon was appointed as the director of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), a federal agency responsible for developing standards for weights and measures, as well as for scientific research. Condon was responsible for reorganising and modernising the NBS and establishing it as a leading centre for scientific research, serving as its Director until 1951.
One of his key achievements was the establishment of the Boulder Laboratories in Colorado, which became a hub for research in atomic and molecular physics, time and frequency standards, and other areas of science and technology. He also oversaw the development of new measurement standards, including the atomic clock, which helped to revolutionise timekeeping and navigation.
During his tenure Condon faced criticism from some members of Congress who accused him of being sympathetic to communist causes, which led to investigations and hearings.
The Condon Report on UFOs
In 1946, Condon had left Princeton to become a professor of physics at the University of Colorado, and served as the director of the JILA (Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics) while there. In 1949, he wrote a controversial memo to the US Air Force, in which he expressed his skepticism about reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Condon argued that there was no evidence to support the existence of UFOs and that the sightings could be explained by natural phenomena or misidentification. Condon’s memo became the basis for a government investigation into UFO sightings known as Project Blue Book.
Later, in 1966 Condon chaired a committee commissioned by the US Air Force to investigate UFO sightings. Known as the Condon Committee, it produced The Condon Report in 1968, which concluded there was no scientific evidence to suggest that UFOs were extraterrestrial in origin, and recommended that further research on the topic be discontinued.
The Condon Report was – and remains – controversial, and Condon faced criticism from both UFO enthusiasts and skeptics. Many UFO enthusiasts believed the report was biased and that Condon had a vested interest in debunking UFO sightings. They also thought he was too quick to ignore evidence that supported the existence of extraterrestrial life and had dismissed the possibility of extraterrestrial visitation. Skeptics argued that the report was not critical enough of the evidence.
However, the report was widely accepted by the scientific community, which had largely dismissed the study of UFOs as pseudoscience.
Opposition to McCarthyism
During the 1950s, Condon was a vocal opponent of McCarthyism, the political movement that aimed to root out communism in the United States.
He was particularly critical of the anti-communist witch hunts that were being conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his supporters, because as a scientist, Condon was a strong advocate for academic freedom and defended the right of scientists to pursue their research without fear of persecution.
When he was accused by McCarthy of having communist ties, Condon refused to cooperate with the House of Un-American Activities Committee and spoke out against the witch-hunt, believing that the accusations were baseless and that the McCarthy hearings were a violation of civil liberties. Condon’s vocal opposition to McCarthyism earned him the respect of many in the scientific community (including Albert Einstein) and cemented his legacy as a defender of intellectual freedom.
Condon’s work on spectroscopy and atomic physics
In the 1950s and 1960s, Condon’s research focused on the study of spectroscopy – the analysis of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation. Condon made significant contributions to the development of spectroscopy as a field of study and was particularly interested in the application of spectroscopic techniques to the study of atmospheric chemistry.
Condon also continued his work on atomic physics throughout his career. He was particularly interested in the study of atomic spectra – the patterns of light emitted by atoms, and developed a series of techniques for measuring these that is still used today.
Edward Condon died on 26 March 1974, leaving a legacy of significant contributions to several fields of physics, particularly his research in the field of quantum mechanics.
He had been a member of several scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Throughout his career, Condon had received numerous honours and awards for his contributions to physics, including the National Medal of Science in 1967, and the Medal for Merit from President Truman for his work on the Manhattan Project.
The crater ‘Condon’ on the Moon is named in his honour.