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Archives Spotlight: The Lawrence Biedenharn Papers

The Lawrence Biedenharn Papers

By Carol Mead

The following article, featured as part of the Archives of American Mathematics Spotlight, was published in the November 2008 issue of MAA FOCUS. The full issue is available here (pdf).

The Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) has recently processed and made available the papers of prominent mathematical physicist Lawrence Christian Biedenharn, recognized worldwide as one of the leaders of modern theoretical physics. They consist of Biedenharn's notes, publications, conference talks, teaching materials from Duke University, correspondence, and personal documents. Biedenharn's wife, Sarah, donated the papers to the University of Texas at Austin in 2007. A finding aid is available online.

Biedenharn was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1922. His undergraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were interrupted by World War II, which he spent in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He received his bachelor of science degree in absentia from MIT in 1944 and applied for graduate studies at MIT while stationed in Tokyo in 1946. He returned to MIT in 1946 and completed his Ph.D. in theoretical nuclear physics in 1950.

After graduation, Biedenharn worked for two years as a research assistant at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. His teaching career began in 1952 when Yale University hired him as an assistant professor. He joined the faculty at Rice University in 1954, becoming an assistant professor there in 1956. Five years later, he moved to Duke University, where he became the youngest full professor on the Duke faculty at age 38. He worked at Duke, supervising 24 Ph.D. students, until becoming Emeritus in 1992. At that time, Biedenharn moved to the University of Texas at Austin, where he continued to teach as an adjunct professor until his death from cancer in 1996.

Throughout his life, Biedenharn received many honors and awards, including the Fulbright and Guggenheim awards in 1958, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Senior Scientist Award in 1976 and 1987. Biedenharn's 70th birthday was celebrated with a symposium held in his honor in Bregenz, Austria. The journal Foundations of Physics published a memorial edition dedicated to Biedenharn in 1997. The University of Texas at Austin established the Lawrence C. Biedenharn Endowed Chair in Physics with a gift by Sarah Biedenharn to honor her husband's contributions to theoretical physics.

Biedenharn's colleagues and his many students knew him as an intelligent, cultured man with varied interests. In addition to his extensive scientific work, which continued unabated throughout the years, and even increased toward the end of his life, Biedenharn pursued many other interests. Among other things, he had a great love for music, particularly chamber music.

The highlight of the Biedenharn papers is his serial notes. Over the course of almost 50 years, Biedenharn kept research notes related to his work on symmetries in nuclear physics, time reversal, relativistic quantum mechanics, and Coulomb excitation, about all of which he wrote and published extensively. Also included in the serial notes are printed materials related to his teaching activities and his participation in various conferences around the world.

Biedenharn's serial notes

Page from Biedenharn's serial notes "I," 1962. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The Lawrence Biedenharn Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

In addition to the serial notes, the collection contains copies of hundreds of his research articles in the fields of nuclear physics and later mathematical physics along with related notes, his conference talks covering a span of 40 years, and his teaching materials used at Duke University. The personal series of the papers includes his thesis from MIT, military service documents, personal correspondence, the proceedings of a symposium in honor of Biedenharn, and the memorial issue of the Foundations of Physics journal dedicated to Biedenharn.

A digital version of Lawrence Biedenharn's biography, including photographs and a publication list, can be found on Duke University's website here.

The Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) is a unit of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Individuals interested in conducting research or donating materials or who have general questions about the AAM should contact Carol Mead, Archivist:, (512) 495-4539.

Revised on July 12, 2010.