Victor Francis Hess

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Victor Francis Hess was an Austrian-American scientist who discovered cosmic radiation and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936. He graduated from the University of Graz in late nineteenth century Austria and began his work at the Viennese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Radium Research. While working there in 1913, he found that atmospheric ionization was created by a very penetrating light that originated in outer space, rather than the earth, as was previously thought. Unfortunately, outside of the University of Vienna, few people were interested in his idea, and it wasn’t until 1925 that his theory was confirmed and the beam was given the term ‘cosmic ray.’ Even later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery. Despite this, he continued to lecture at several Austrian colleges, and when Austria was invaded by Germany, Hess escaped to the United States. He continued his studies there as well, making substantial contributions to the study of radioactivity. He was adamantly opposed to nuclear testing, believing that there was too little understood about radioactivity to know for certain that such experiments, even if carried out underground, would have no effect on the surface.

Childhood and Adolescence

Victor Francis Hess was born in Waldstein Castle, near Peggau, Steiermark, Austria, on June 24, 1883. Vinzens Hess, his father, was a forester in Prince Louis of Oettingen-service. Wallerstein’s Serafine Edle von Grossbauer-Waldstätt was his mother’s name.

Victor, at 10 years old, was transferred to Graz Gymnasium for secondary study in 1893. He attended the University of Graz with Physics as his major after graduating from there in 1901. In 1905, he received his graduate degree, followed by a postgraduate degree in 1908, and eventually a PhD in 1910.

Victor Francis Hess began his career at the Physics Institute of Vienna for a brief while. Professor Von Schweidler, who was the first to introduce young Hess to the new findings in the realm of radioactivity, was his boss here. He joined the Institute for Radium Research, a newly established research institute under the auspices of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, in 1911. He worked there under Stefan Meyer, an Austrian scientist who focused on radioactivity research, as well as Franz Exner, a pioneer in the field of radiation research.

He began his gamma ray study under their supervision. Because of the ionization of gamma rays, it was thought that air was a weak conductor of electricity at the time. The earth was thought to be the source of this radiation. However, preliminary data indicated that ionization increased with altitude, ruling out the ground as a source.

Several well-known scientists began to explore with this. Hess began by developing a new gadget that was significantly more accurate than anything before available. He then climbed up in balloons eight times in 1911, seven times in 1912, and once in 1913 to measure the degree of ionization. He measured the radiation in a methodical manner each time.

Hess discovered that the amount of radiation reduced until it reached a height of one kilometer, after which it began to rise. Furthermore, as compared to the amount of radiation at sea level, the radiation at a height of 5 km is about twice. As a result, the earth cannot be the source.

Hess flew in the balloon both during the day and at night. One of these ascents was also made under a total solar eclipse. There was little variation in the readings, he discovered. As a result, he came to the conclusion that the sun could not be the cause of the ionization.

Finally, in 1912, he came to the conclusion that an unknown beam with a high penetrating capability penetrates the earth’s atmosphere from space and is the source of ionization. Hess’ study was published in the Proceedings of the Viennese Academy of Sciences.

Robert Andrews Millikan, an American physicist, validated his findings long later, in 1925. The ray was given the term ‘cosmic ray’ by Millikan. Meanwhile, Hess continued to lecture at the Institute for Radium Research while also doing research.

He was named Associate Professor at the University of Graz in 1920. He took a leave of absence and traveled to the United States in 1921. He spent two years there with the United States Radium Corporation (New Jersey) and the United States Bureau of Mines (Washington DC).

In 1923, Hess returned to the University of Graz, where he remained until 1931. He was appointed Ordinary Professor of Experimental Physics at the University in 1925. He was the Director of the Institute of Radiology at the University of Innsbruck from 1931 until 1937.

By that time, Hess had married, and his wife was a Jew. He had also served as a representative of the sciences in Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg’s autonomous administration. As a result, when Germany conquered Austria in 1937, he was informed that if he remained in Austria, he would be imprisoned and deported to a concentration camp.
He originally fled to Switzerland to evade Nazi persecution.

His arrest warrant was issued in Austria within a month. As a result, he chose to migrate to the United States, where his wife’s son from her first marriage previously resided. In 1938, he and his wife moved to the United States. In the same year, he accepted a position as Professor of Physics at Fordham University and continued his studies. In 1946, he and Paul Luger of Seattle University conducted the first tests in the United States for radioactive fallout from the Hiroshima explosion.

By 1947, Hess had devised “an integrating gamma-ray approach” for detecting minute levels of radium in the human body. As a result, early identification of radium poisoning has become possible. The United States Air Force requested him to investigate the radiation effects of nuclear tests in 1955. Hess distinguished between natural and artificial radiation, demonstrating that artificial radiation traces may be found in the atmosphere.

He spent twenty years as a professor at Fordham University. He left there in 1958, but continued to work on his studies. He authored sixty articles and a number of books over his career. His first work, ‘Die Wärmeproduktion des Radiums’ (The Heat Production of Radium), was published in 1912.

Major Projects of Victor Francis Hess

Despite the fact that Hess had worked on research throughout his life and made significant contributions to our understanding of radiation and its effects on the human body, the discovery of cosmic rays remains his most important achievement. It paved the way for a slew of new discoveries in nuclear and particle physics, as well as high-energy physics.

Achievements & Awards

The Austrian Academy of Sciences awarded him the Ignaz Lieben Prize for the discovery of cosmic rays in 1919.
Victor Francis Hess and Albert Einstein shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936 for their discovery of cosmic radiation. Hess was awarded the Abbe Medal and the Abbe Memorial Prize by the Carl Zeiss Institute in Jena in 1932. The Austrian government awarded him the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art in 1959.

Personal History and Legacy

Victor Francis Hess married Marie Bertha Warner Breisk in the year 1920. Hess had to flee to the United States in 1938 because she was a Jew, and she was persecuted by the Nazis. He spent the rest of his life there. Hess became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1944. Marie Bertha died in 1955 from cancer. He married Bertha’s nurse, Elizabeth M. Hoenke, in the same year. Until his death in 1964, the pair stayed married. He didn’t have any children of his own. Hess was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the end of his life. On December 17, 1964, in Mount Vernon, New York, he died of it.

Estimated Net Worth

The estimated net worth of Victor Francis Hess is not available.


A contemporary of Hess, Domenico Pacini, conducted substantial research on cosmic rays. He did not, however, go up in a balloon; instead, he plunged under the water. He placed his instrument in a copper box and sailed it into Livorno Bay. The radiation detected in the ocean’s depths was far lower than that measured on the top. As a result, he determined that the cosmic rays could not be coming from the earth’s crust.

It was suggested that Hess should not be given exclusive credit for finding the cosmic ray because both scientists were aware of each other’s work.Pacini died in 1934, the year the Nobel Prize for Physics was established to commemorate the discoverer of cosmic rays. Hess was singled out for the discovery of cosmic rays since the prize could not be given posthumously.