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Hans Dehmelt
UW physicist Hans Dehmelt holds one of his early ion traps. (UW Photo / Davis Freeman)

The University of Washington says the first Nobel laureate in its history, Hans Georg Dehmelt, has passed away in Seattle at the age of 94 after a long illness.

Dehmelt won a share of the Nobel physics prize in 1989 for his work with ion traps, a type of apparatus that uses an array of electromagnetic fields to isolate electrically charged atoms and subatomic particles, and hold them in place for highly accurate measurements.

“Hans Dehmelt put the UW Department of Physics on the map as a nationally competitive, top-tier department,” UW physicist Blayne Heckel said today in a news release. “His legacy of tabletop, high-precision, fundamental physics experimentation remains a strength within the department. The electron trap technology developed by Professor Dehmelt is currently being employed at UW by a new generation of researchers in an experiment to measure the mass of the electron neutrino.”

Dehmelt was born in Germany, served in the German army and was captured by Allied forces during the Battle of the Bulge in 1945. After World War II ended, he was released from a U.S. prisoner-of-war camp in France and resumed his studies in physics. Dehmelt came to the UW in 1955.

 

“I built my first high vacuum magnetron trap in 1959 and was soon able to trap electrons for about 10 seconds and to detect axial, magnetron and cyclotron resonances,” Dehmelt recalled in his Nobel autobiography.

His fellow Nobel physics laureates in 1989 included the University of Bonn’s Wolfgang Paul, who pursued a parallel line of research with ion traps; and Harvard’s Norman Ramsey, who invented a measurement method that was applied to atomic clocks.

When Dehmelt got the word that he had won the Nobel Prize, he celebrated by telephoning Diana Dundore, a local physician whom he had been dating for several years.

“He called me up in the middle of the night and asked, ‘Will you marry me?'” Dundore said in an account passed along by the UW. “We’d had a joke that we would get married if he won the Nobel Prize, and that was his way of delivering the news.”

The two were wed shortly thereafter, and remained together until Dehmelt’s death on March 7.

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