The Metropolis Fellowship: Who Was Nick Metropolis?

Nick MetroplisNicholas Constantine Metropolis was born June 11, 1915, in Chicago, Illinois. He received his BS in 1936 and PhD in 1941 from the University of Chicago. Both degrees were in chemical physics.

In 1942 and 1943, Metropolis accepted an appointment as a research instructor at the University of Chicago, where he worked with James Franck. Franck was a Nobel Laureate in physics, having received the award with Gustav Hertz in 1925 for discovering the laws that governed the impact of an electron upon an atom.

In early 1943, Robert Oppenheimer convinced Metropolis to come to Los Alamos. His first assignment was to develop equations of state for materials at high temperatures, pressures, and densities.

During World War II, scientists at Los Alamos used slow, clanking, electromechanical calculators when designing the first atomic weapons. These calculators proved fragile, and soon Metropolis and Richard Feynman were spending some of their time repairing these calculators.

At the end of World War II, mathematician John von Neumann brought together the developers of the first electronic computer, known as ENIAC, and several Los Alamos scientists, Metropolis among them. It then fell upon Stanley Frankel and Metropolis to develop a problem for ENIAC to solve: in 1945, the two men had the computer run complex calculations involving the design of the first hydrogen bomb.

Metropolis returned to Chicago, where he continued to work with ENIAC. Using the germ of an idea conceived by Enrico Fermi some 15 years earlier, Metropolis in 1948 led a team that carried out a series of statistical calculations on ENIAC. These statistical calculations would become collectively known as the Monte Carlo method of calculation, which since then has helped address issues such as traffic flow, economic problems, and the development of nuclear weapons.

Fascinated by the power of computation, Metropolis attempted to establish a major computing facility at the University of Chicago. When this facility did not materialize as he had hoped, Metropolis began to think about other possibilities. As he was weighing options, he received a call from Carson Mark, head of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos. Mark suggested that Metropolis set up a computing facility at Los Alamos—he accepted the offer and in 1948 began to build a computer that would implement the rapidly developing concepts of digital computation.

The Mathematical Numerical Integrator and Computer—MANIAC for short—became operational on March 15, 1952. From 1953 to 1959, Metropolis and his team used MANIAC and the Monte Carlo technique to address complex problems in physics, biology, chemistry, and mathematics.

In 1957, Metropolis returned to Chicago, where he became the founding director of the Institute for Computer Research. In Chicago, he invented online data processing for scientific instrumentation. He designed and built a computer that was coupled to the Navy's cyclotron. This computer received and analyzed data while an experiment was running.

Metropolis returned to New Mexico in 1965, where he remained the rest of his life. He continued to develop computational techniques and encouraged others to become interested in parallel computing. He was the Laboratory's first Senior Fellow Emeritus. Metropolis died in 1999 at the age of 84.

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