Herbert Jehle

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Herbert Jehle

Legacy Faculty, 1959-72


Herb Jehle made wide and deep contributions to physics and to society.

Early in his career (late '40s), he became known for his work on the two-component field equations to allow for neutrinos with mass.

Along with his study of field equations was his review and extension of the spinor description of particles on a curved space-time and curved internal gauge manifold (1953).

He originated a model for the statistical accumulation of small planetary bodies toward Bode radii through the perturbations of the massive planets, using Jacobi invariants.

In the early '50s, he carried through the necessary quantum calculations to show the importance of induced-polarization forces in the attraction between large similar macromolecules in biological systems.

His work on van der Waals forces led to his interest and contributions to the mechanisms for DNA replication and protein synthesis, work supported by NIH and NSF. During this time, he was a consultant to Marshall Niremberg in the early DNA-to-protein coding problem.

In the late '60s, Herb renewed his thoughts on the covariant description of particle fields on curved manifolds. He suggested in 1964, long before string theory, that the covariant description of the gauge fields automatically introduced a Dirac-like flux string in space-time. Fascinated by this discovery, he explored to the end of his life the topology of such flux strings in an attempt to describe quarks.

Born on March 5, 1907, in Stuttgart, Germany of General Julius von Jehle and Maria Gminder, Herb first studied electrical and mechanical engineer by working with Prof. R. Grammel and then the famous applied mathematician Prof. Fritz Emde, graduating summa cum laude from the Institute of Technology in Stuttgart, with a Diplom Ingenieur in 1930. But he could not resist studies in music (piano), history, humanities, philosophy, and theology while working toward a physics and applied mathematics degree at the University of Berlin, and received in 1933 a Doctor Ingenieur, again summa cum laude, with Prof. Orlich at the Institute of Technology. He spent a postdoctoral year in theoretical physics at the University of Cambridge, England from 1933 to 1934. After writing for the Jahrbuch ueber die Fortschritte der Mathematik, he returned to England with a research assistantship at the University of Southampton (1937-38) and then to University of Brussels, Belgium, as a research associate, working on problems in molecular physics and astrophysics.

Herb rejected positions in Germany's rearmament industry and declined an academic appointment in Nazi Germany in 1936. One of Herb's heroes was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, in 1933, left his professorship at the University of Berlin to act against the Nazification of the church, and so was hanged in 1945 at Flossenburg just before the Americans arrived. Herb refused military service before the Gestapo tribunal in Camp St. Cyprien, France in 1940. As a conscientious objector to the regime, he was interned in several Nazi-controlled camps in Vichy, France, 1940-1941.

The following story about Herb while he was held at Gurs Concentration Camp was reported by Jeanne Merle D'Aubigné in God's Underground (Emile Fabre, ed., Bethany Press, 1970), a the collection of accounts of the work of the Catholic relief organizations to get individuals out of the Nazi camps:

"In the group of the Protestant community, I see again the silhouette of Prof. Herbert Jehle. He was Aryan, but an intransigent pacifist, and his being the son of a German general had not protected him. As a member of the Student Christian Movement, he had participated in the great ecumenical youth meeting in Amsterdam in 1939. Very tall, with an ample golden beard and a sparkle in his eyes, he wore in camp a blanket around his waist and another over his shoulders. In this way he preserved his only suit for the day he hoped to leave for America. In this strange costume he went for a walk with me one evening along the main road. Feeling very discouraged, I told him of my horror for these barracks, the odors, the suffering [about 30-40 people were dying daily from starvation]. He said to me, "Do not look at the camp. Raise our eyes and contemplate the magnificent heaven, and the worlds that follow into infinity. I am an astronomer; I live in the sky. Look at that constellation, you see that planet…" He began to describe to me the starry sky which twinkled above us in that extremely cold evening. Then he began to talk to me of Einstein's theories. That lesson, coming from a man who had lost everything and who found in his faith and in his science the means to carry on, did me incomparable good. Herbert Jehle was one of the last who managed to embark for the United States, thanks to the help of friends in the World Student Christian Federation. He became professor of astronomy and physics at an American university."

Sir Arthur Eddington, a fellow Quaker who knew Herb from his Cambridge days, was instrumental in gaining his release. (The Quakers had also acted earlier to get food to the people in the Camp.) Herb liked to relate the story of how he helped safeguard his travel out of Europe during the occupation by carefully reproducing all of his exit permissions on a bed sheet to reduce the chance that the information from his papers would be lost or stolen.

In September of 1941, Herb joined a distinguished group of refugee scholars instructing at Harvard University, including Leon Brillouin and Phillip Frank. After four years at Harvard, he went to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where he designed a projection magnifier for the semi-blind, supported by the National Research Council. In 1947, he became a member of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. It was there that he met Richard Feynman, who, in his Nobel acceptance speech, credits Herb for helping in the initial ideas toward the path-integral approach to quantum theory.

From Princeton, it was a short hop to the University of Pennsylvania (1947-1949), as an assistant professor. For the following decade, he went west, and held the position of associate and full professor at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln). He said he began thinking about the importance of molecular forces in a hospital where he was sent after slipping on an icy sidewalk. He continued work in theoretical physics and biophysics while applying his teaching style of personal engagement in the development of each of his students. He became a US citizen in 1955. He spent his 1956 sabbatical year at Caltech in Pasadena as a research associate, working with Linus Pauling. In recognition of his contribution to physics, he was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

Herb came to GW in 1959, settling with his wife Dieta von Kuenssberg and two young boys, Eberhard and Dietrich, at a location sufficiently far from Washington, D.C., that his family would be less likely to be lost in a cold-war insanity. Herb enjoyed spreading his papers on the train commuting from his home, and he particularly liked inhaling the Jeffersonian atmosphere and walking the rolling mountains around Charlottesville while thinking about nature.

All the while, Herb engaged in war relief and peace work. He became a member of the International Committee of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, The American Friends Service Committee, SANE, and the American Civil Liberties Union. He was an Editor of the Newsletter of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science, and a collaborator with Linus Pauling on the appeal to stop the testing of nuclear weapons.

Herb became friend and colleague to hundreds of physicists and peace-activists around the world. He and Dieta were important contributors to the peace work of Quakers through the American Friends Service Committee and other Friends. His loyalty to the Quakers was strengthened by their willingness to act in betterment of the human condition. Albert Einstein, in a letter to Herb supporting his draft article on world peace entitled, "For a Universal Morality", began by saying, "I have read your article several times and feel that it is in complete harmony with my own way of thinking." (From Einstein on Peace, Nathan and Norden, eds., Schocken Books, 1960)

Herb was a frequent traveller, carrying and gathering ideas. He could cart brief cases too weighty for his graduate students, despite the effects of polio he had as a child and a heart attack in 1964!

After retirement with emeritus status in 1972, Herb continued a 12-hour-a-day workload. He became a consultant at the National Cancer Institute and a fellow at the University of Maryland and at the Max Planck Institute in Munich. He died Jan 14, 1983, reading papers on a train from Mainz to a peace conference in Koblenz and then Bonn with grant applications.

(2000, by W.C. Parke. Help on this reflection came from Herb's son, Dr. Dietrich Jehle of Buffalo, New York.)