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Mehra, Jagdish | University of Houston Libraries

Name: Mehra, Jagdish

Historical Note:

Jagdish Mehra, prominent historian of modern physics and the author of The Historical Development of Quantum Theory, 6 volumes, (1982-2000), died on 14 September, 2008 at his home in Sugar Land (near Houston), Texas.

Jagdish Mehra was born on 8 April, 1931, in Meerut (north of New Delhi), India.  He finished high school and his early studies in India and went on to earn both bachelor and Master of Science degrees from Allahabad University.  He then began post-graduate studies at the Max Planck Institut für Physik at Göttingen, Germany (1952-1955).

In 1958 Mehra moved to the United States and obtained a second Master of Science degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.  Later he completed work for a Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland (1963).  From 1964, he taught at various American universities; including Purdue and Southeastern Massachusetts.  Additionally, he directed a program in physics and the history of physics for IBM in Chicago (1967 to 1969) until he was asked to join E. G. Sudarshan and Ilya Prigogine at The University of Texas at Austin, (1969 -1973).  Special professorships at both the University of Geneva and the Solvay Institute in Brussels lured him back to Europe in 1973.  During the 1980s Mehra lectured at Rice University and the University of Houston, as well as at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy (1989-1991).

At the age of 15, upon receiving an encouraging letter from Albert Einstein, Jagdish Mehra became interested in the history of modern physics and later had the good fortune to discover the first scientific essay (1895) penned by this same lifelong idol.  His recorded interviews, with most of the distinguished physicists of the Twentieth Century, notably Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman, Werner Heisenberg, and Eugene Wigner, explore and document the origin and development of their revolutionary ideas.  On the occasion of Dirac’s 70th birthday, in 1972, Mehra organized what was perhaps the greatest symposium of the 20th century: “The Physicists Conception of Nature.”  In 1994 he wrote a thorough and lively biography of Richard Feynman entitled The Beat of a Different Drum.  With Kimball A. Milton, he authored a scientific biography of Julian Schwinger, Climbing the Mountain, (2000), while editing the seven volumes of Wigner’s Collected Works (1992-2001).  Mehra’s interests extended far beyond science and thus the interviews he conducted included those with literary and philosophical celebrities, such as T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Louis Aragon, Carl Gustav Jung, and Jean Paul Sartre.  The Jagdish Mehra Collection – highly praised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as “absolutely unique as a scientific and cultural source” – now comprises a premier research center of the University of Houston Libraries’ Special Collections.

Whether organizing timely physics conferences or hosting lively social events in Austin, Geneva, or Brussels, Mehra regularly assembled representatives from the two worlds of science and literature (as described by early sponsor, Charles Percy Snow), thus opening new vistas to many privileged participants.  Mehra became well known to a wider audience through a multitude of lectures, articles, and books on a vast number of topics.  In addition to the publications previously mentioned his most ambitious and time-consuming project was perhaps the composition of the six volumes: The Historical Development of Quantum Theory (1982-2000).  Speaking as a long-time collaborator, Helmut Rechenberg can verify that Jagdish Mehra was a demanding and stressing partner.  “He constantly pressed for rapid progress in the investigation, analysis and proper assembly of the vast number of sources that he required.  Such tedious work; involving questions, criticism, and innovative thinking, was always rewarded with a final product of great precision and excellence.”

Helmut Rechenberg, Max Planck Institut Für Physik, Munich, Germany

Richard H. Dickerson, Curator, Jagdish Mehra Collection, University of Houston

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