Val Fitch (1923– )

We often think of Newton when the laws of physics come to mind, but a little more recently, it was a McGill grad that turned many of science’s ideas upside-down.

Val Fitch was born and raised on a cattle ranch in rural Nebraska. As a soldier in World War II, he was sent to Los Alamos in New Mexico to work on the Manhattan Project, which was aimed at developing an atomic bomb, and spent time among many of the giants in physics of the era. He subsequently came to Montreal to study electrical engineering, graduating in 1948. From there, he continued to Columbia University, where he completed his PhD in physics in 1954. In the same year, Fitch began his career as a professor and researcher in the field of particle physics at Princeton University.

Fitch’s most important contribution to his field was the breakthrough he made on the ‘laws of symmetry’ — essentially, shaking the core assumption of physics that the universe is symmetrical, one of the beliefs which governed all the laws of physics at the time. One of his major findings (in 1964) was that that a reaction run in reverse does not merely retrace the path of the original reaction. This showed that the reactions of subatomic particles are not indifferent to time. This discovery helped answer unsolved mysteries from the smallest of lab reactions to the biggest Big Bang.

Fitch spent most of his academic career at Princeton University working in experimental particle physics. Aside from the 1980 Nobel Prize, he was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1966, and received the prestigious National Medal of Science in 1993 for his pioneering experiments.