Reinhard Oehme, theoretical physicist, 1928–2010

The University of Chicago’s Reinhard Oehme, whose grasp of theoretical physics attracted several collaborators who would later win the Nobel Prize, died sometime between Thursday, Sept. 29 and Monday, Oct. 4, at his home in Hyde Park. He was 82.

As a young man Oehme (pronounced ERR–muh) flew glider planes as a hobby. He also was a high–flying theoretician who collaborated with many prominent scientists of his day, including 2008

Nobel laureate Yoichiro Nambu, the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics at UChicago.

One of Oehme’s major scientific contributions built upon the Nobel Prize–winning research of Chen Ning Yang, PhD’48, and Tsung–Dao Lee, PhD’50. Yang and Lee received the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics for their proposal that the laws of physics do not respect the conservation of parity, or in other words, that these laws can tell left from right.

“The interchange of left and right is said to be a discrete symmetry, because you either interchange left and right, as when looking in a mirror, or you do not, you cannot just interchange them a little,” said Peter Freund, Professor Emeritus in physics at UChicago. “Lee and Yang made this proposal to solve a certain puzzle and it was a very radical suggestion at the time.”

Yang and Lee’s idea was soon confirmed experimentally, but beyond parity (P), there were two other known discrete symmetries of the laws of physics: charge conjugation (C, which switches matter and anti–matter) and time reversal (T, which switches past and future). According to a then relatively new and not yet widely known theorem, applying the product PCT of all three discrete symmetry operations (interchanging left with right, and particles with antiparticles and past with future) P, C and T does not change the laws of physics).

Oehme was the first to realize that since this PCT symmetry must be obeyed, then if P was violated, C and/or T had to be violated as well. He proved that if the experiments suggested by Lee and Yang showed a P violation, then C had to be violated too. Oehme sent a letter to Yang and Lee explaining this insight, and they immediately suggested that the three of them write a paper together.

The resulting paper, published in 1957, became “extremely famous,” said Freund, a close friend and long–time colleague and collaborator of Oehme. That paper was the second of three that Yang and Lee co–wrote in sequence, but the other two were without Oehme.

“The general conception in the physics community was that Lee and Yang did this sequence of spectacular papers. In the second paper they also took along a young kid to work out some details, and accordingly Oehme wasn’t given much credit,” Freund said. But when Yang published his memoirs in 1983, “he made it clear that the idea of using the PCT theorem to show that C must be violated, came from Oehme.”

Oehme is well known not only among physicists but also among mathematicians for his “Edge of the Wedge Theorem,” Freund said. Oehme made this important contribution to the theory of functions of several complex variables in 1956, in collaboration with Hans–Joachim Bremermann and John G. Taylor at the Institute for Advanced Study. That same year, the late N. N. Bogolyubov, a renowned Russian mathematical physicist and holder of an honorary doctorate from UChicago, independently arrived at the same important theorem, though his proof was less elegant, Freund said.

Oehme was born Jan. 26, 1928, in Wiesbaden, Germany, the son of Dr. Reinhold Oehme and Katharina Kraus. He attended Frankfurt University, from which he graduated in 1948. Oehme studied under Werner Heisenberg, the 1932 Nobel laureate in physics, at the University of G"ottingen, Germany, where he received his doctorate in 1951.

He married Mafalda Pisani in S~ao Paulo, Brazil, in 1952. When they met, she was the secretary of Max von Laue, 1914 Nobel laureate in physics. She died in 2004. “It was an extremely happy marriage,” Freund said. “When she died five years ago, he was devastated.”

Oehme joined UChicago’s Enrico Fermi Institute as a research associate in 1954, but left to become a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., in 1956. He joined physics faculty at UChicago in 1958, retiring as professor emeritus in 1998. During his career he also held visiting positions at a variety of universities, national laboratories and research centers in the United States, Europe, Japan and South America.

Oehme received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964 and a Humboldt Award in 1974. He also was a visiting fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science in 1976 and 1988.

Oehme has no known survivors. Arrangements are pending for a private funeral and memorial service.