Photo of John H. Van Vleck

John H. Van Vleck

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences
For his many contributions to the develoment of the theory of molecular structure and for his profound influence, through original contributions and through many brilliant students, on the theory of the magnetic and dielectric properties of materials.

As a child, John H. Van Vleck vowed to avoid entering academia. “Serious young men took engineering rather than math or physics, where most of the students were girls,” he said.

After a semester at Harvard, he changed his mind, embarking on a study of quantum theory and magnetism that would define the field.

Van Vleck, dubbed the “father of modern magnetism,” was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for work that has been applied to the development of the laser beam.

During the 1930s, his team developed theories about “disordered systems,” monitoring electron activity and magnetic moments that occur when foreign atoms are inserted into crystalline structures.

A respected professor, Van Vleck – who retired from Harvard in 1969 – believed good science is a way to “get at what is the truth of things.”

“The more we know about the universe,” he said, “the better off we are.”