Abraham Pais

Most Popular

Birth Sign

Pais was born into a family of educators and has excelled academically since his youth. He was fascinated by languages and spent his high school years studying English, French, and German. He was drawn to exact sciences during his college years and later earned a doctorate in theoretical physics. Pais and his family suffered tremendous threats as Jews during World War II, but they escaped with the assistance of some non-Jewish acquaintances. Annie, his sister, was murdered in the death camps. After the war, he had an enlightening experience working with Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. His pioneering work in nuclear physics was on ‘associated production’ and the makeup of the subatomic particle ‘Kaon’. His writings on the history of modern physics were well-known among the world’s patrons of science. This eminent scientific historian’s biography of Albert Einstein is widely regarded as one of his best works. He continued to work even after retiring as a Rockefeller University Professor Emeritus. Since 2005, the American Physical Society has awarded the ‘Abraham Pais Prize for Physics History’ in his memory. Continue reading to learn more about his life and works.

Childhood & Adolescence

Pais was born in Amsterdam on May 19, 1918, to Jewish parents Isaiah Jacques Pais and Kaatje Cato van Kleeff. Isaiah and Kleeff had met during their elementary school teacher training. Kleeff resigned from her work following their marriage.

Abraham was a bright student who enjoyed reading and completed his primary schooling before enrolling in a burgher school at the age of 12. He aced his exams and graduated at the top of his class.

He began his postgraduate studies at the ‘University of Amsterdam’ in 1935. Pais’s brush with particle physics began with a chance encounter with Professor George Uhlenbeck during some guest lectures at the institution.
In 1938, he earned two Bachelor of Physics degrees in mathematics and science from the institution. Maintaining contact with Uhlenbeck, he enrolled in the same year at the ‘University of Utrecht’ to continue graduate studies.

Abraham Pais’s Career

Pais became interested in research on a variety of experimental physics problems during his time at the institution. He also became acquainted with prominent experts such as Hendrik Casimir, who was conducting research on quantum physics.

In 1939, physicists Leonard Salomon Ornstein and Hendrik Anthony Kramers taught and mentored him. He learned about the ‘Meson theory of nuclear forces from Leon Rosenfeld, who was visiting Utrecht to offer a seminar.
He earned his doctorate under Rosenfeld, who was chosen Uhlenbeck’s successor at the ‘University of Utrecht’ in 1940 after passing his master’s degree tests.

As an assistant professor, he built his thesis on the work of Rosenfeld and Moller, who investigated the likelihood of the highly stable deuterium nucleus disintegrating when attacked by intense photons.
Pais completed his thesis and obtained his degree in 1940, only days before the Germans put a moratorium on giving doctorates to Jewish fellows.

He sought safety with a friend during World War II and evaded deportation to detention camps. Throughout the battle, he switched nine hideouts with the assistance of Tina Strobos, a college friend.

However, the Germans apprehended him and his wife Jeanne, as well as two of his other fugitive friends, in 1945. Jeanne and Trusha were released, but Pais and a friend, Lion Nordheim, were detained for questioning. The lion was executed despite the fact that he was fortunate enough to be released days before the war ended.

In 1946, following the war, he joined Niels Bohr’s ‘Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. He spent about a year assisting Bohr with his studies.
Pais obtained a fellowship from the ‘Institute for Advanced Studies’ at ‘Princeton University’ in New Jersey in 1947. It was here that he met Albert Einstein, the subject of his later biography.

In 1951, this burgeoning physicist was appointed a professor at ‘Princeton,’ where he conducted research on the behavior of subatomic particles. He described a phenomena in which certain particles that decay rapidly in pairs degrade very slowly in solitude. ‘Associated Production’ was the designation given to the procedure.

Apart from that, one of his contributions to particle physics was the theory he developed with scientist Murray Gell-Mann concerning the composition of the subatomic particle ‘Kaon’ and the property of particles known as strangeness.’

He was appointed chairman of the department of theoretical physics at the ‘Rockefeller University in 1963. After a quarter-century of service, he retired as ‘Detlev W. Bronk Professor Emeritus’ from the institution.
With a lifelong interest in language and an eager reader, he began cataloging works on current physics in the late 1970s.

One of his most acclaimed works is his biography of Albert Einstein, titled ‘Subtle is the Lord—: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, which was released by the ‘Oxford University Press.
The 1988 publication of ‘Inward Bound: Of matter and forces in the physical world’ is a historical summary of the advancements in the discipline of Physics. Abraham makes reference to events that have occurred during the last hundred years in this book.

He also published a book on Niels Bohr’s life and accomplishments in 1991. The ‘Oxford University Press’ published this work, titled ‘Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Politics’.
In 1994, he wrote the sequel to his first book on Einstein, titled ‘Einstein Lived Here (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1994).

He also wrote an autobiography in 1997, titled ‘A Tale of Two Continents: A Physicist’s Life in a Turbulent World. Abraham has told the narrative from a variety of views.

Throughout his career, he wrote biographies of numerous physicists with whom he worked or became acquainted and later compiled a collection named ‘The Genius of Science: A Portrait Gallery. The book, which was published in 2000, features seventeen biographies of prominent physicists.
Pais spent half of his time after retirement working at the ‘Neils Bohr Institute’ in Denmark and the other half writing scientific papers.

His Significant Works

Pais is a physicist who is well-known for his work in particle physics. His greatest contribution to the realm of nuclear physics is his hypothesis of ‘associated production’ and the composition of Kaon particles.
‘Lord is Subtle,’ his biography of Albert Einstein is widely regarded as one of the finest biographies of a scientist ever written. The book was even nominated for a ‘National Book Award’ in the United States.

Awards and Accomplishments

Pais was awarded the ‘Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize’ in 1976 in recognition of his contributions to particle physics.
In 1995, he was awarded the ‘Lewis Thomas Prize’ by the ‘Rockefeller University for his writings on the scientific community.

Personal History and Legacies

Abraham Pais was married to Jeanne, who was detained by the Gestapo with him during World War II. He later married Lila Lee Atwill. Ida Nicolaisen was his third wife, with whom he shared his final years. Josh Pais, Abraham’s son, is a Hollywood actor.
He died of heart failure in Copenhagen in 2000. He was working on a biography of Robert Oppenheimer in his final days.

Estimated Net worth

Abraham Pais’s estimated net worth is $ USD 6 million and he earns a living as a nuclear scientist, science historian, university professor, and physicist.


“One of the most bizarre things I learned, one of the most bizarre things I learned, is how to think. There was nothing else that could be done. I was unable to see people or take a walk in the forest. All I had were my head and my books, and I spent a lot of time thinking “is a quotation from the eminent Dutch-American physicist.