Otto Haxel, a nuclear physicist from Germany was involved in the German nuclear energy projects during the Second World War.
Together with J. Hans D. Jensen and Hans Suess he researched “magic numbers” or stable nuclei, with a total of 2, 8, 20, 50, 82 or 126 neutrons or protons and their development.
From 1950 to 1974, Haxel was a professor of physics at the University of Heidelberg, where he researched the use of nuclear science in environmental physics, leading to the establishment of the Institute of Environmental Physics in 1975.
Early Life and Educational Background
Otto Haxel was born on the 2nd of April in 1909 in Neu-Ulm in Bavaria, Germany. He was educated at the Technische Hochschule München, which is now known as the Technische Universität München, from 1927-1933. During those years, he also took courses from The University of Tübingen, and he received his doctorate in 1933, under the supervision of Hans Geiger (who was known for the invention of the Geiger counter).
Being under Geiger’s tutelage, Haxel took the opportunity to be Geiger’s teaching assistant at the University of Tübingen from 1933 up to 1936. Because of his experience in the academic field, Haxel completed his Habilitation in 1936.
Academic Career and Other Pursuits
Haxel’s academic affiliation with Geiger paved his way to become a notable figure in the academic scene. He obtained a position as a teaching assistant at the Technische Hochschule Berlin. In 1939, he became a lecturer at the same university. About a year later, Haxel met Fritz Houtermans, who went on to be one of his future collaborators in nuclear research.
Otto Haxel was a member of the Uranium Club. This club, also known as the German nuclear energy project, was established to develop and produce nuclear weapons, and several of the greatest scientific minds of Germany were recruited for this cause. From the years 1940 up to 1942 during the Second World War, Haxel was a member of the Uranium club, and he studied the neutron absorption properties of uranium. In 1942 Haxel was called up for military service. There, he was in charge of a group involved in nuclear research, under the command of Admiral Rhein of the German Navy—he had previously been a submarine commander.
After the war, from the years 1946 up to 1949, Haxel was a staff assistant to Werner Heisenberg at the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Göttingen. In 1949, Haxel was appointed as the supernumerary professor at the University of Göttingen. During these years spent in Göttingen, Haxel was involved with collaboration with Fritz Houtermans, including research on the half-life of radioactive isotope Rubidium 87.
Another notable name Haxel had been affiliated with is J. Hans D. Jensen, who was a scientist working in Heidelberg’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, and Hans Suess from Hamburg’s Institute of Physical Chemistry. Together, they researched “magic numbers” or stable nuclei, with a total of 2, 8, 20, 50, 82 or 126 neutrons or protons and their development. Their model successfully predicted that these magic numbers represented fully occupied, stable shells of nucleons.
In 1950 Haxel accepted a professorship at the physics department of the University of Heidelberg, remaining there until 1974. His research included the connection of cosmic radiation and radioactivity and atmospheric radioactivity. He later also became the director of the University of Heidelberg’s Institute of Physics II from 1970 to 1974.
At Heidelberg, Haxel contributed to the movement of environmental physics using nuclear science, which led to the formation of the Institute of Environmental Physics in 1975, with Karl-Otto Münnich as the founding director.
In addition to the Uranium Club, Haxel also played a part in other notable scientific groups. From 1956 to 1957, he was a member of the Nuclear Physics Working Group, part of the German Atomic Energy Commission and worked alongside the chairman Werner Heisenberg and vice-chairman Hans Kopfermann.
From 1970 to 1975, he was the Scientific and Technical Managing Director of the Karlsruhe Research Center. He was also a signatory of the 1957 Gottingen Eighteen manifesto, was a declaration of 18 leading nuclear scientists of West Germany against arming the West German army with tactical nuclear weapons.
His Latter Years
Because of his contributions for the nuclear energy industry, the Friends of the Karlsruhe Research Center established the Otto Haxel Prize to bright minds who have their own achievements in nuclear energy studies.
Haxel himself was awarded the Otto Hahn Prize of the City of Frankfurt am Main in 1980 due to his work and dedication for channeling nuclear energy and understanding its production.
On a more personal note, Haxel’s friendship with Houtermans led to his very own marriage. Haxel married Ilse Bartz, who was a chemical engineer and had previously been married to Houtermans, They had two children together, Christoph and Philipp.
Otto Haxel died on 26 February 1998 in Heidelberg, aged 88.