Walter Thirring 1927–2014

Walter Thirring, one of the most important theoreticians in Austria since 1945, passed away on 19 August, after a long battle with illness.

Walter’s grandfather as well as his father, Hans, were physicists too – the latter is well known for his important contributions to general relativity. The family suffered a great deal during the Second World War: Walter’s father was dismissed by the Nazis and his brother lost his life. Walter was saved because he was wounded during an exercise in the German army. In line with family tradition, he then succeeded with a picture-perfect career in mathematical physics, after earning his PhD from the University of Vienna in 1949 with distinction, his thesis dealing with aspects of the Dirac equation.

After completion of his thesis, Walter left to visit Erwin Schrödinger in Dublin, Werner Heisenberg in Göttingen, Wolfgang Pauli in Zürich, Albert Einstein in Princeton, and others. In 1954, he returned to Europe as a lecturer at the University of Bern, and also held visiting positions in the US. During this time, he established himself as a pioneer in the newly emerging quantum field theory, and wrote an important paper on renormalization and a paper with Stanley Deser, Marvin Goldberger and Murray Gell-Mann on dispersion relations in particle physics. He also formulated a model for strong interactions based on SU(3), which influenced the work of Gell-Mann that led to the quark model. After a fruitful decade on the road, he finally settled in 1959 as professor at the Institute of Theoretical Physics of the University of Vienna, where he stayed until his retirement in 1995.

Scientifically, Walter was probably best known for what is now called the Thirring model, which is an exactly solvable model in two dimensions with quartic fermionic interactions. Another milestone was the proof of the stability of matter, with Elliott Lieb. He was also widely known for his excellent textbooks in theoretical physics, mainly on quantum electrodynamics and quantum field theory. His particular concern was to put his lectures on a solid mathematical foundation, which led to the four-volume work on mathematical physics. His scientific legacy also comprises famous students and collaborators, such as Julius Wess.

During his travelling years, Walter learned to appreciate the international character of modern science and became aware of its all-importance. When he returned to his home country, his insight and interest in these matters were crucial in re-establishing Austria in the scientific landscape. In particular, he was instrumental in facilitating Austria’s membership of CERN in 1959, which paved the way for research on a truly international basis. His special ties with CERN culminated in membership of the directorate of CERN as head of the Theory Division, from 1968 to 1971. As a member of the directorate, Walter participated in the decision to build the Super Proton Synchrotron on the CERN site – a decision that proved to be crucial for the future of CERN and of particle physics.

Walter always stressed that international collaboration and combined effort is of utmost importance for smaller countries such as Austria, which by themselves could not afford large-scale science such as particle physics. In line with this, he spent much effort in fostering European collaboration, especially in view of the dominant US and Russian activities in science. One of his most visible achievements is the Erwin-Schrödinger-Institut für Mathematische Physik in Vienna, which has become a renowned international centre of research in mathematical physics. Given its location, it became an important meeting point for scientists from both Eastern and Western Europe. Moreover, the Walter Thirring Institute for Mathematical Physics, Astrophysics and Nuclear Investigations, in the Ukraine, founded in 1996, as well as the collaboration with the Bogolyubov Institute for Theoretical Physics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, serve an important role in the peaceful interaction between scientists of the East and West.

Walter’s death is a great loss for science and international collaboration, and we will keep his memory alive at CERN.

Harald Grosse, Wolfgang Lerche and André Martin, on behalf of Walter’s friends at CERN and in Vienna.


Bruno Righini 1931–2014

Bruno Righini, who for 32 years was responsible for the Electronic Test and Maintenance Group of the Experimental Physics (EP) Division at CERN, passed away recently after a sudden and cruel illness.

A physicist at the University of Bologna who had written textbooks on general and transient electronics, Bruno arrived at CERN in 1964. He oriented the still small group towards experimental physics, which at the time was moving from photographic bubble-chamber detectors to counters and electronic recording. This development gave an extraordinary impulse to the creation of new sections for digital electronics and data acquisition, both being fields where Bruno’s competence was outstanding. Sections in charge of instruments, of their design and of the study of the corresponding specifications and standards were duly extended. In short, the group became responsible for the evaluation, selection and procurement of the electronic equipment used in the experiments and stored in a central pool.

Bruno solved the delicate function of selection by establishing an objective system of tests that were transparent and open to all. The suppliers, if they wished, could participate in tests at CERN, therefore removing any possible doubt about receiving fair treatment. This, and other solutions, were widely appreciated by the experimental physicists, and contributed to making the group close-knit and united in its purpose, as well as to giving proper credit to the people concerned.

Bruno always kept in close contact with the physics teams and understood their needs well. He dealt with people in a simple, unassuming and intelligent way, which gave everybody the feeling of being treated with due consideration. For many of us, he was not only a colleague but also a dear friend, to the extent that we could debate at length, without different opinions ever becoming a point of importance. He was open minded and liked to listen, in search of a clear definition of a problem or a better solution. His keen sense of justice made discussions interesting, purposeful and constructive. The group and the Electronics Pool became gradually an essential and indispensable feature of the EP Division, and were recognized as such by the internal staff as well as by external visiting teams.

We all feel the sadness of his premature passing away, and wish to express our sympathy and deepest condolences to his family in these difficult circumstances. We will always remember Bruno, his natural wisdom, his quiet wit and his deep understanding of our human society at CERN.

His colleagues and friends.