Details about the work of V. Hess

For an excellent summary of the work of Victor Hess we refer to Diploma Thesis of Georg Federmann (in German): the html version or PDF versions with one page per sheet or two pages per sheet.

See also the Hess Archive in Insbruck and the "discovery article" by V.F. Hess (Phys. Zeitschr. XIII (1912) 1084).

Short biography

Biographical information about VICTOR HESS
in: "Current Biography Yearbook 1963" (ed. Ch. Moritz)
The H.W. Wilson Company, New York, 1963, p. 180-182.

HESS, VICTOR FRANCIS June 24, 1883- Physicist; university professor

Victor Francis Hess, whose discovery of cosmic rays made him the co-recipient of the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physics, has in the course of more than fifty years made basic contributions to an understanding of radiation and its effects on the human body. Before emigrating from Austria to the United States in 1938 Hess was associated with the universities of Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck. From 1938 to 1958, with the title professor emeritus, he has continued to carry on research at the university. Hess holds several honorary degrees, and he has served as consultant to civic and military bodies.

Victor Francis Hess was born to Vinzens and Sarafine (Grossbauer) Hess on June 24, 1883 at Waldstein Castle near Deutsch Feistritz, Styria, Austria, where his father was chief forester on the estate of Prince Oettingen-Wallerstein. He attended the Gymnasium in the nearby city of Graz from 1893 to 1901 and the University of Graz from 1901 to 1905. In June 1906 Hess obtained the Ph.D. degree in physics summa cum laude.

Intending to do postdoctoral work in optics, Hess made arrangements to study under Professor Paul Drude in Berlin. But Drude committed suicide a few weeks before Hess was to become his students, and Hess went instead to the University of Vienna on the invitation of Professor Franz Exner. A pioneer in the study of radiation, Exner, with Egon von Schweidler, interested Hess in investigating radioactivity and atmospheric electricity.

Hess was a demonstrator at the mineralogical institute of the University of Vienna in 1907 and 1908. In 1910 he began lecturing as a Privatdozent at the university, and in the same year he was appointed assistant at the new Institute for Radium Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, a post he held until 1920. From 1908 to 1920 Hess was also a lecturer in medical physics at the Vienna Veterinary Academy.

In 1911 Hess began the work that twenty-five years later made him a Nobel Prize winner. For some time scientists had been puzzled by the fact that the air in electroscopes-instruments for detecting electrical charges became electrically charged (ionized) no matter how well the containers were insulated. It was thought that radioactivity from ground minerals was reponsible, but if such were the case the effect should have diminished greatly at a height of about 300 meters. In 1910 Theodore Wulf measured ionization at the bottom and top of Eiffel Tower, which is some 300 meters hight, and found that considerably more ionization existed at the top than could be expected if it were caused by ground radiation. His results were not given unqualified accepance, however. Nor were the experiments of the scientists who in 1909, 1910 and 1911 made balloon ascents to record ionization, for their instruments developed defects.

Reading about these earlier experiments, Hess speculated as to whether the source of ionization could be located in the sky rather than the ground. Before making balloon ascents himself, he determinated the height at which ground radiation would stop producing ionization (about 500 meters) and designed instruments that would not be damaged by temperatures and pressure changes. He then made ten ascents (five at night) - two in 1911, seven in 1912, and one in 1913 - and found that ionization soon ceased to fall off with height and began to increase rapidly, so that at a height of several miles it was many times greater than at the earth's surface. He concluded, therefore, that "a radiation of very high penetrating power enters our atmosphere from above."

After making an ascent during an almost total eclipse of the sun on April 12, 1912 Hess further concluded that, since ionization did not decrease during the eclipse, the sun could not itself be the main source of the radiation. Hess's theory about rays from space did not receive general acceptance at the time he proposed it, but increased research after World War I supported it. First named for Hess, the newly discovered radiation was dubbed "cosmic" by Robert A. Millikan in 1925.

In 1919-20 Hess served as an assistant professor at the University of Vienna, and in 1920 he became an associate professor of experimental physics at the University of Graz. In February 1921 he took a leave of absence to make his first trip to the United States, where he became chief physicist and director of a research laboratory, built under his supervision, of the United States Radium Corporation in New Yersey. During his two years in the United States, Hess lectured at several American universities and served as a consultant to the United States Bureau of Mines.

Hess returned to the University of Graz in 1923 and was made a full professor in 1925 and dean of the faculty in 1929. He stayed at Graz until 1931, when he accepted a position as professor of experimental physics and head of the institute for radiation research at the University of Innsbruck. With the support of the Rockefeller Institute, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and the Emergency Society for German Sciences (a university association for the support of science after World War I), Hess founded in the autumn of 1931 a station for the observation of cosmic radiation on Hafelekar mountain near Innsbruck at a height of 2,300 meters (about 7,000 feet).

For his discovery of cosmic radiation Hess was named co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936; he shared the prize with Professor Carl D. Anderson of the California Institute of Technology, who had discovered the positron. Commenting on the award to Hess, a 'Scientific Monthly' writer noted: "After a decision had been made that the first significant work in the field of cosmic rays was to be honored by a Nobel Prize, there was certainly no living person who could for a moment be considered for the award except Dr. Hess."

Hess returned to the University of Graz as professor of physics and director of the physics institute in 1937. Two months after the 'Anschluss' in March 1938, however, he was dismissed from his post, first because he had a Jewish wife and secondly, because he had been a representative of the sciences in the independent government of Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg. A sympathetic Gestapo officer warned the Hesses that they would be taken to a concentration camp if the stayed in Austria, and they escaped to Switzerland four weeks before the order came for their arrest.

Offered a full professorship at Fordham University in New York, Hess immigrated with his wife to the United States, where a son of Mrs. Hess already lived. He became an American citizen in 1944. In 1946, less than a year after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he and Paul Luger of Seattle University conducted the first tests for radioactive fallout in the United States. Many of these were made from the eighty- seventh floor of the Empire State Building. The following year Hess went from the heights to the depths of Manhattan, measuring the radioactivity of granite in the 190th Street subway station at the base of Fort Tyron which was covered by 160 feet of rock.

In a 1947 issue of the American 'Journal of Roentgenology and Radium Therapy', Hess and William T. McNiff reported that they had worked out "an integrating gamma-ray method" by which they could detect minute amounts of radium in the human body. This new procedure made it possible to detect radium poisoning before it reached a critical stage. In 1948 Hess visited Europe and was a guest professor at the University of Innsbruck.

Two years later, at the request of Mayor William O'Dwyer of New York City, Hess joined five other scientists in investigating the possibility of producing rain artificially in New York State, which at that time was suffering a severe drought. Another project with which he became involved in 1950 was a United States Air Force study to determine the effects of atomic bomb tests in terms of radioactive fallout. Completed in 1955, the study reported a distinction between artificial and natural radiation and found that since the tests there had been a trace of artificial radiation in the atmosphere.

Hess retired from his Fordham professorship after twenty years of service in 1958 and became a professor emeritus, but he continues to do research in his laboratory at the school. His was one of four laboratories in the United States that conducted tests on measurement of radioactivity in the breath of people who worked with radium, and he has also sought to establish a more accurate scale of the toleration limits of radioactivity of the human body. Hess has found that there are individual differences in the amount of radiation a person can tolerate without serious injury. Research in this area is difficult, he has said, for the effects of radioactivity are cumulative and may sometimes take as long as fifty years to make themselves fully felt. For this reason he strongly opposes nuclear weapon testing. "We know too little about radioactivity at this time", he notes "to state definitely that testing underground or above the atmosphere will have no effect on the human body." Hess has avowed that he intends to dedicate the rest of his working life to further study of the effects of radiation on human beings.

A contributor to many scientific journals and compilations in Europe and the United States, Hess has also written several books, some of which have been translated from the original German. His books include 'Luftelektrizitaet' (Atmospheric Electricity) (Braunschweig, 1928), written with H. Benndorf; 'The Electrical Conductiviy of the Atmosphere' (Akademie, 1934); and 'Die Weltstrahlung und ihre biologische Wirkung' (Fuessli, 1940), written with Jakob Eugster and published in a revised edition as 'Cosmic Radiation and its Biological Effects' by the Fordham University Press in 1949.

Hess holds honorary degrees from the University of Vienna, Loyola University in Chicago and in New Orleans, Fordham University, and the University of Innsbruck. In 1958 the University of Graz held a celebration in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Hess's completion of his graduate work, and Fordham University awarded him its Insignis and Bene Merenti medals. Hess also received the Lieben Prize of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in 1919, the Ernst Abbe Prize of the Carl Zeiss Foundation in 1932, and the Austrian governement's Honorary Insignia for Art and Science in 1959. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Geophysical Union; one of the handful of American members of the Pontifical Academy of Science in Rome; and a member of the Swiss Physical Society, the Physical Society of London, and the American Meteorological Society. He is a Republican and a Roman Catholic.

On September 6, 1920 Victor Francis Hess married Maria Bertha Warner Breisky, who died on April 2, 1955. On December 13, 1955 he married Elizabeth M. Hoencke, who had nursed his first wife through her final illness. Hess is five feet nine inches tall, weighs 190 pounds and has blue eyes and white hair. He speaks English well with a slight German accent in a hoarse whisper, the result of a throat operation he underwent in the 1930's. An avid tennis player in his younger years, he now takes an interest in boxing (Archie Moore is a particular favorite). He also enjoyes motoring and was very disappointed when New York State suspended his driver's licence recently because he failed its eye test.

(Remark: Prof. Hess died on December 17, 1964)


American men of Science, 10th Ed. (1960-62)
Heathcote, Niels, Nobel Prize Winners in Physics (1953)
International Who's Who, 1962-63
MacCallum, T. W. and Taylor, Stephen, The Nobel Prize-Winners (1938)
Who's Who in America, 1962-63