California Institute of Technology



Milton Plesset, 1908-1991.  Photo ID 10.31-49


In the News

Collections in preparation: Milton S. Plesset

The Milton Plesset papers comprise a small collection of technical reports, lecture notes, and symposia materials. Much of the material is not authored by Plesset, although the collection contains three early undated notebooks of calculations, probably from the 1930s. The materials were donated to the Archives by the Plesset family early in 2011. Of special interest are several sets of lecture notes taken from Richard Feynman’s courses on quantum electrodynamics (Cornell, 1949), statistical mechanics (Caltech, 1960-1961), and gravitation (Caltech, 1962-1963).

Plesset first came to Caltech as a postdoctoral scholar in 1932. During that time he worked closely with J. Robert Oppenheimer on the Dirac electron. In March 1933 he gave a theoretical physics seminar which was attended by Einstein—who never said a word, according to Plesset's account in his oral history interview of 1981 for the Caltech Archives. That date also turned out to be the day of the Long Beach earthquake.

The following year, with the help of Robert Millikan, Plesset was able to visit the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.


Plesset at Bohr Institute

Shown above: Theoretical physics symposium at the Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, 1933. In the front row, left to right, are Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Ehrenfest, Max Delbrück, and Lise Meitner. Plesset is in the second row, seventh from left, just between Ehrenfest and Delbrück. Photo ID MD43.12-12


Returning to the US, Plesset was hired as an instructor in theoretical physics at the University of Rochester. His interests, however, gradually shifted to applied science and engineering. From 1941 to 1948 he headed the Analytical Group of the Douglas Research Laboratories, then returned to Caltech in 1948. Plesset's later reputation was as an authority on the problems and progress of nuclear power. He was a consultant to the Science Division of the RAND Corporation from 1948-1972, and from 1975-1982 he served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Advisory Committee for Reactor Safeguards (ACRS).

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