Papers and correspondence of Sir Rudolf Ernst Peierls, 1907-1995

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Original material: The papers document Peierls's career and activity up to 1974, the year of his retirement from the Wykeham Chair at Oxford University. They consist almost entirely of correspondence written and received by Peierls, covering all aspects of his career, including scientific research, service on committees and advisory boards, publications, visits and conferences and appointments. Of particular interest are the extended exchanges of correspondence with H.A. Bethe, N. Bohr, N.F. Mott and W. Pauli, and shorter correspondence with M. Born, L.D. Landau, G. Placzek, J.R. Oppenheimer and others. Peierls himself drafted or approved the catalogue entries for these principal correspondents of his earlier years. The correspondence also shows the activity and international reputation of Peierls's departments at Birmingham and Oxford. Many distinguished scientists were guided by him in the early stages of their careers and his concern for their selection, research progress and subsequent career is very much in evidence. There are also many recollections and accounts by Peierls and others of episodes in his career, some associated with the retirement symposium held in Oxford in 1974.

Supplementary material: The papers form a substantial complement to the original deposit of papers. They comprise not only continuing material for Peierls's activities since 1974, but early correspondence and papers relating to his family and career.

Biographical and personal papers are the largest component, providing new material on Peierls's own career and opinions, and on his many honours and awards. Of special interest are the family papers and correspondence, notably from Peierls's father and step-mother who remained in Berlin until 1939. There is also some material relating to his wife Genia, including his letters to her during their long-distance courtship, written in English, German and Russian, and correspondence with the hostesses of their children evacuated to Canada during the Second World War. The lighter side of their life together is shown in the verses and sketches for some of their famous parties and celebrations, and their circular letters to family and friends are invaluable in keeping track of the nomadic life they both enjoyed.

Research and teaching material relates to work after 1974. Because of Peierls's constant travel and lack of a permanent base, much of his thinking and research was conducted by correspondence, and thus is often better documented than earlier work on ephemeral blackboards or rough paper. Papers on weapons control and security expand some of the material in the original deposit, and reflect Peierls's continuing concern with the problems of international control of atomic and nuclear weapons and include his long-term commitment to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Papers on the history of twentieth century science and scientists include some original material relating to the 'Frisch-Peierls memorandum' of 1940 on the feasibility of an atomic weapon. There are also many recollections and tributes for leading figures in twentieth century science, almost all drawn from Peierls's own knowledge and contacts, and including many notable German and Russian scientists. His recollections continued to be extensively called upon by writers and researchers, and published in his own frequent reviews of books and memoirs.

Publications and editorial papers include full documentation of Peierls's long service on the Editorial Board of Contemporary Physics and also of the publication of his own later books including Bird of Passage, Surprises in Theoretical Physics and its sequel More Surprises... There is also a little material relating to radio, television and films, most of which relates to atomic bomb history. Documentation of committees, societies and consultancies is not extensive, as Peierls spent much of his retirement years abroad. There is, however, material on his consultancies with the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, and the Science and Engineering Council Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory. By contrast the substantial material relating to visits, lectures and conferences records the constant travel which Peierls and his wife planned and carried out for their retirement, and which continued after her death in 1986. Particularly well documented is his long association with the University of Washington at Seattle.

The scientific correspondence and references and recommendations relate, with few exceptions, to the post-1974 period. Not all of the retirement correspondence is easy to read. Although Peierls typed most of his own correspondence, he was by his own admission a negligent proof-reader, and many of his carbon copies are in addition on somewhat poor quality paper, and fading. Later he used a succession of word-processors and sophisticated printers but by then his eyesight had begun to fail, and this, together with his proof-reading weakness, allowed many errors to slip through which require a measure of intuition to decipher.

Administrative / Biographical History

Peierls was born in Berlin on 5 June 1907. He entered Berlin University in 1925 to read physics, transferring to Munich University in 1926 in the Department of Theoretical Physics (A. Sommerfeld). In 1928 he transferred to the Theoretical Physics Department, Leipzig University (W. Heisenberg) and in 1929 to the Eidgenssische Technische Hochschule, Zrich (W.Pauli). He was Pauli's 'Assistent', 1929-1932. He held a Rockefeller Fellowship, 1932-1933, working in Rome with E. Fermi and at Cambridge with P.A.M. Dirac and R.H. Fowler. He then researched at Manchester University, 1933-1935, supported by an 'academic assistance' grant for German refugees, and at the Royal Society Mond Laboratory, Cambridge, 1935-1937. He was Professor of Applied Mathematics, at Birmingham University, 1937-1963, and Wykeham Professor of Theoretical Physics, Oxford University, and Fellow of New College, 1963-1974.

During the Second World War Peierls worked on atomic energy, initially in collaboration with O.R. Frisch to point out the feasibility and power of an atomic weapon and later on the theory of isotope preparation, and on questions involved in the size, design and efficiency of an atomic bomb. From 1943 he worked in the USA, first in New York in collaboration with the isotope separation plant at Kellex, and later at Los Alamos, New Mexico. His research work also included the quantum theory of solids, of electro-magnetic fields and of the solid nucleus, some of this was done jointly with L.D. Landau, H.A. Bethe, N. Bohr and others. Peierls was a founder member of the Atomic Scientists Association and an active participant in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

Peierls was elected FRS in 1945 (Royal Medal 1959, Copley Medal 1986, Rutherford Memorial Lecture 1986) and wasknighted in 1968. He died in 1995.


By section as follows: Biographical and personal, Research and teaching, Weapons control and security, History of twentieth century science and scientists, Publications, Radio, television and films, Committees, societies and consultancies, University of Washington Seattle, Visits, conferences and lectures, Correspondence, References and recommendations. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

Entry permitted only on presentation of a valid reader's card or an Oxford University Card displaying the Bodleian logo. All applicants for new or replacement cards must apply in person, with a recommendation and payment if required, and with proof of their identity.

Some items not available until 2000.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogues of the papers and correspondence of Sir Rudolf Ernst Peierls: CSAC catalogue no. 52/6/77, 71 pp and NCUACS supplementary catalogue no. 57/6/95, 185pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Separated Material

Material relating to work done during the Second World War remained (as of 1977) at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Establishment, Harwell.

Taped interviews with Peierls are held at Sources for the History of Quantum Physics, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and at the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, New York.

Custodial History

Original material received for cataloguing in 1974 by the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre from Peierls. Placed in Bodleian Library (gift) in 1977.

Supplementary material received for cataloguing in 1994-1996 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from Peierls and Mrs Jo Hookway (daughter). Placed in Bodleian Library (gift) in 1995.