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Inspired by Which mathematicians died very young or in a tragic way? , I wonder which physicists had similar fates.

A quick search lead me to Heinrich Hertz who died from a malignant bone condition at 36. Ludwig Boltzmann is also known for committing suicide before seeing how important his contribution was to prove the existence of atoms. Paul Ehrenfest had also a very tragic story that I am unable to write down here. What are some examples? Be free to expand on the above cited. Was there some Galois kind of figure?

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    $\begingroup$ 16 Great Scientists who died before they were 40 includes a number of physicists: Pascal, Carnot, Ritter, Fresnel, Clifford, Hertz. Mostly from diseases like tuberculosis. Moseley was killed at war. Mayer, Boltzmann, Ehrenfest, James, Bridgman and Lewis (1987 Nobel prize winner) committed suicide, but they were not so young, see Thermodynamics and Suicide. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Sep 5 at 4:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Conifold you may make an answer out of that $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Sep 5 at 9:32
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    $\begingroup$ Ehrenfest fatally shot his younger son Wassik, who had Down (Down's in British English) syndrome, then killed himself. $\endgroup$ Sep 5 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ An interesting question would be "which logicians died very young or in a tragic way?" $\endgroup$ Sep 6 at 9:20

12 Answers 12

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Henry Moseley was KIA at Gallipoli at the age of 27

Alexander Friedmann died at the age of 37 (of poisoning and/or poor treatement).

Matvei Bronstein was executed by Soviet communists at the age of 32.

Lev Shubnikov was executed by Soviet communists at the age of 36.

Semyon Shubin [ru] died in Soviet prison at the age of 30.

Hans Hellman was executed by Soviet communists at the age of 35.

Alexander Witt [ru] died in a Soviet prison camp at the age of 36.

(Russian Wikipedia has a list of physicists killed or imprisoned by Soviet authorities; I selected from this list those who were killed at the age less than 40, and gave links to English Wikipedia when available.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Their scientific breakthroughs are listed in Wikipedia articles to which I gave the links. $\endgroup$ Sep 4 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting Soviet related casualties list. As for the breakthroughs some of those links lead to Russian Wikipedia, but I guess automated translation works well these days... $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Sep 4 at 13:14
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    $\begingroup$ Only one link is to Russian Wikipedia. Alexander Witt was one of the founders of what is called non-linear dynamics nowadays (chaos, etc). $\endgroup$ Sep 4 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ The link to Shubin is also from Russian Wikipedia $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Sep 4 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ The Wikipedia page for Friedmann says misdiagnosed typhoid, not poisoning. $\endgroup$
    – RLH
    Sep 6 at 16:35
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A few more. At the time of their deaths ...

  1. Alexis Thérèse Petit was 28 (tuberculosis): known for work in thermodynamics, including the Dulong–Petit law
  2. Walther Ritz was 31 (tuberculosis): known primarily for his numerical eigenvalue approximation technique (the Rayleigh–Ritz method) but wikipedia mentions that he also made an empirical discovery regarding the spectral lines for atoms.
  3. Otto Sackur was 34 (chemical explosion): known for the Sackur–Tetrode equation
  4. Hugo Tetrode was 35 (tuberculosis): known for the Sackur–Tetrode equation
  5. Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot was 36 (cholera): well known pioneer in thermodynamics (e.g., the Carnot cycle)

Also, Ettore Majorana disappeared at the age of 31. He introduced the concept of Majorana fermions, among other things. In his well known biography on Fermi, Emilio Segrè mentions some important work Majorana did in nuclear physics which went unpublished.

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    $\begingroup$ Both Sackur and Tetrode?! :( $\endgroup$
    – Dvij D.C.
    Sep 5 at 3:23
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    $\begingroup$ A suggestion, you may add a short mention on their physics breakthroughs $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Sep 5 at 9:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Mauricio, added some details to my answer $\endgroup$ Sep 5 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ For a moment there I read that as "Sackur–Tetrode explosion". $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Sep 5 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @HollisWilliams, I heard he was seen having a burger with Elvis Presley. Seriously though, as I understand it, that's the level of credibility for those rumours. $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Sep 6 at 8:58
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Louis Cartan, son of Élie Cartan and brother of Henri Cartan, was a member of the French Resistance and was executed by the Germans in 1943, when he was 33 years old.

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  • $\begingroup$ Any important breakthroughs in physics? $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Sep 5 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ All I know is that he was an experimental physicist and that he worked in Nuclear Physics. If you find it uninteresting, I will delete my answer. $\endgroup$ Sep 5 at 9:45
  • $\begingroup$ Great. Yeah, you can leave it, it is interesting and I did not know that Henri Cartan had a physicist brother. I just wish that some mention to the physics involved is added to the answers to this question. $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Sep 5 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ And Henri and Louis Cartan also had a composer brother, Jean Cartan, who died when he was only 25 years old. $\endgroup$ Sep 5 at 9:52
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Harry Daghlian, 24

Louis Slotin, 35

Both killed at Los Alamos during separate reckless criticality accidents with the same plutonium bomb core (afterwards nicknamed the "Demon Core").

Daghlian died 25 days after the accident after suffering severe radiation poisoning and falling into a coma. Slotin died after nine days of progressive and agonizing deterioration of his bodily functions.

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Karl Schwarzschild died aged 42 from the autoimmune disease pemphigus after returning from the Russian front in World War I. While not as young as many of the examples in other answers, a particularly tragic aspect is that he wrote his most influential papers on the Schwarzschild metric during his service when he was already suffering from pemphigus.

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A famous example of not very young, but still a tragic death is Marie Curie, who died (at 66) of "aplastic anemia from exposure to radiation" while studying radioactivity. I'm guessing she's not the only one, since the dangers of radioactivity were very long not known, and it was by some even touted as some kind of wonder cure-all, and they even put in things like toothpaste. (Becquerel died at age 55 from "unknown causes, but was reported that "he had developed serious burns on his skin, likely from the handling of radioactive materials."")

Marie Curie's husbad, Pierre Curie, did die younger, at the age of 46, when he fell under a horse-drawn cart. According to Wikipedia, "statements made by his father and lab assistant imply that Curie's characteristic absent-minded preoccupation with his thoughts contributed to his death."

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Bruno Renner known for the Gell-Mann-Oakes-Renner relation died at age 32 in a mountaineering accident. Here is a link to an obituary in German.

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I think perhaps the closest we can get to a romantic ''Galois figure'' in physics is maybe Henry Moseley. Isaac Asimov argued (probably correctly) that Moseley would have been a very strong contender to win the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking spectroscopy experiments if he had not been sadly killed.

If I remember correctly, Rutherford tried to protect Moseley by making the case that he was an essential research worker and that he would be of more benefit in a civilian role working on military research, but Moseley was very patriotic and insisted on going to fight on the frontlines as a soldier.

Robert Boyer (widely known for Boyer-Lindquist coordinates in general relativity) was killed at age 33 in the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting. At the time this was the deadliest shooting by a lone gunman in US history, although it has now sadly been surpassed several times.

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Gilbert Stanley Bogle, born in 1924, was a physicist who worked at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) on the campus of the University of Sydney. Married with several children, he was considered to be a brilliant scientist and had been a Rhodes Scholar. ... Bogle's body was discovered near Fullers Bridge by two youths searching for golf balls[1 January 1963]. They saw his body and presumed him to be drunk. When they returned an hour later to find that he had not moved and that his face had turned blue, they went to fetch help.

When police arrived at the scene they discovered that Bogle's body was half-undressed. Somebody had placed his trousers over the back of his legs in such a way that he appeared to be dressed, but was not. A piece of carpet was also laid on top of his back underneath his jacket, which was laid perfectly on his back.

Shortly after this, Mrs Chandler's body was discovered a short distance away. ...

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  • $\begingroup$ This is one of the darkest stories here. Did the investigation conclude anything? $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Sep 6 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Mauricio, I was a teenager when the bodies were found, and the newspapers indulged in some lurid speculation (including LSD, which was just becoming fashionable). The inquest didn't come to any conclusions ("either death from heart failure or they stopping breathing"). The most plausible explanation, IMHO, is hydrogen sulphide poisoning. The Wikipedia article, which I linked to above, mentions that there had been complaints about foul smells from the river, and hydrogen sulphide is quite toxic. $\endgroup$ Sep 6 at 22:19
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Félix Esclangon died at the age of 51 during a lecture. He got electrocuted while he was performing an experiment with X-rays in front of the students.

There is now an Esclangon building at Sorbonne Université, close to where the dramatic accident took place.

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Ettore Majorana, of which the presumed death was in 1938, at age of 32

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  • $\begingroup$ Please consider adding more information about his physics breakthroughs. Also you should really consider adding more details in general, this answer should say more about his presumed death, see hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/13642/… $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Sep 6 at 15:17
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Alfred Hill in 1988 at age 29. He was a passenger on PanAM 103, which was brought down by a bomb.

https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/abs/10.1063/1.2810472

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