Photo: Charles Quigg '09
J. Peter Toennies '52
Doctor of Science
As an Amherst student, J. Peter Toennies ’52 spent much of his time in the lab, chasing the basic building blocks of matter. In the 55 years since his graduation, he has continued that chase—and his efforts have changed our understanding of how molecules and atoms make up the world around us. Toennies’ research has earned many top scientific prizes, including, in 2006, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics, an honor that he shares with past recipients Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, among others.
After graduating from Amherst in 1952 with a degree in physics, Toennies earned a Ph.D. degree in chemistry at Brown, then went to Germany, the country of his parents’ birth, for post-doctoral study. Planning to stay in that nation for just a year or two, he has rarely left, dedicating much of his career to the Max Planck Society and the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organisation in Göttingen (formerly the Institute for Fluid Dynamics), where he served for three decades as director. Since 1971, he has served on the faculty at the University of Göttigen and the University of Bonn. A prolific researcher and scholar, he has produced nearly 600 publications and two books about molecular collisions, intermolecular forces, solid state surfaces and, most recently, studies of microscopic superfluidity in small helium droplets.
A fellow of the World Innovation Council, Toennies has been active in numerous scientific organizations worldwide, including the Council of the European Physical Society and the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. For “unraveling the forces between atoms and molecules using the molecular beams technique and for the development of helium droplet spectroscopy,” he received the Kolos Medal in 2004. He also has been honored with the Physics Award of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences, the Hewlett-Packard Europhysics Prize and the Stern-Geriach Gold Medal, the highest distinction given by the German Physical Society for work in experimental physics.