Vernon Hughes, a groundbreaking particle physicist who helped revolutionize Yale’s Physics Department, died March 25. He was 82.
A faculty member from 1954 to 1991, Hughes was remembered by colleagues and friends for his energy and dedication to his work. Colleagues credited Hughes with bringing the Physics Department into the modern era and making some of physics’ most important discoveries.
“Vernon Hughes was the greatest physicist at Yale in the 20th century,” Yale physics professor Bob Adair said.
During his long career, Hughes was involved in research at Yale, Stanford and MIT. He also worked on the design for the particle accelerator at Los Alamos, N.M., originally intending it to be a facility at Yale. Hughes’ most famous accomplishment, Adair said, was the discovery of a new kind of elementary particle, the muon.
Muons are rare, heavier cousins of electrons. Hughes made the first observation of muons in 1960.
“It was what made him a candidate year after year for the Nobel Prize,” Adair said.
Much of Hughes’ work centered around making extremely precise measurements at the subatomic level. Physics professor D. Allen Bromley said these measurements were the equivalent of determining the distance between New York and Los Angeles to the nearest diameter of a hydrogen atom.
Adair said famed nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer was once asked to critique the Yale Physics Department. The blunt Oppenheimer gave a less-than-glowing review.
“He said the only person he had any respect for was Vernon Hughes,” Adair said.
The high opinion of Oppenheimer and other leading physicists of the day led to Hughes’ appointment as chairman of the Physics Department in 1961, a position he held for five years. During that time, the department underwent a major expansion.
Hughes’ meticulous nature followed him into the classroom, where he taught advanced physics classes at Yale.
“The one thing that all of [his students] tell me was that it was characteristic of Vernon that he was never satisfied until he and his students understood what they were studying,” Bromley said.
Hughes was forced to retire at age 67, the last year Yale had mandatory retirement. Nevertheless, he continued to advise the Physics Department and work on advanced physics research.
“He was an inspiration to all of us. You never have to lose your drive until the last day,” Physics Chairman Ramamurti Shankar said. “He was 80 years old and he put the rest of us to shame.”
Hughes was born May 28, 1921, in Kankakee, Illinois. He attended Columbia University, where he received a master’s degree and Ph.D.
A memorial service for Hughes will be held in May, at a date to be determined. A symposium discussing the broad range of physics topics Hughes studied will be held sometime next fall. Shankar said the symposium will be a fitting tribute and Hughes would want to be remembered most for his contributions to science.
“He didn’t want the flowers, he didn’t want a service,” Shankar said. “He just wanted the symposium.”
Hughes was predeceased by his first wife, Inge, and is survived by his second wife, Miriam, and two sons, Gareth and Emlyn, and four grandchildren, Ariel, Isaac, Noaah and Inge Jovana. His son Emlyn followed in his father’s footsteps and is now a professor of physics at Cal Tech.