Friday, September 4, 2009

September 4: Max Delbrück

Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
September 4, 1906 – March 9, 1981

Max Delbrück was a German-American biophysicist and Nobel laureate.

Delbrück was born in Berlin, German Empire. His father was Hans Delbrück, a professor of history at the University of Berlin, and his mother was the granddaughter of Justus von Liebig.

Delbrück studied astrophysics, shifting towards theoretical physics, at the University of Göttingen. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1930, he traveled through England, Denmark, and Switzerland. He met Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr, who got him interested in biology.

Delbrück went back to Berlin in 1932 as an assistant to Lise Meitner, who was collaborating with Otto Hahn on the results of irradiating uranium with neutrons. During this period he wrote a few papers, one of which turned out to be an important contribution on the scattering of gamma rays by a Coulomb field due to polarization of the vacuum produced by that field (1933). His conclusion proved to be theoretically sound but inapplicable to the case in point, but 20 years later Hans Bethe confirmed the phenomenon and named it "Delbrück scattering".

In 1937, he moved to the United States to pursue his interests in biology, taking up research in the Biology Division at Caltech on genetics of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster.

Delbrück was one of the most influential people in the movement of physical scientists into biology during the 20th century. Delbrück's thinking about the physical basis of life stimulated Erwin Schrödinger to write the highly influential book, What Is Life?. Schrödinger's book was an important influence on Francis Crick, James D. Watson and Maurice Wilkins who won a Nobel prize for the discovery of the DNA double helix.

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