Emil Jan Konopinski, born in Michigan City, Indiana, was always proud of his Hoosier heritage. He graduated from high school in Hamtramck, Michigan, in 1929. He received his academic degrees from the University of Michigan, his Ph.D. in 1936. In his dissertation he developed a new theory of beta radioactivity subsequently known as the Konopinski-Uhlenbeck theory, to account for recent experimental results that disagreed with the theory previously proposed by Enrico Fermi. The next two years he spent at Cornell as a National Research Council Fellow, and in 1938 he joined the Physics Department at Indiana University. At the inspired invitation of the newly appointed President Herman B Wells and Dean Frenandus Payne, this department had just been revitalized and was to be brought to the forefront of research by Allan C. G. Mitchell. The hot area of fundamental physics was the study of the atomic nucleus, and it was hoped that the promising young theorist Emil J. Konopinski was going to supply guidance in determining the direction of worthwhile research and the full significance of the experimental results obtained.
After the outbreak of the war he joined the group of physicists at the University of Chicago who, under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, built the first self-sustaining nuclear reactor and then went on to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos to contribute to the war effort. His best-known work there, as a member of the group headed by Edward Teller, was a careful calculation that ruled out the danger that a hydrogen bomb might ignite the earth's atmosphere.
When the war was over, Emil returned to Indiana University as a full professor to teach physics and continue his research on beta radioactivity and what is now called the weak interactions. One of his major contributions, in collaboration with a Ph.D. student, is known as the law of lepton conservation. In 1964 Oxford University Press published his definitive treatise, The Theory of Beta Radioactivity.
The IU Physics Department had the benefit of Emil's presence (with minor interruptions for further work at Los Alamos and for a Guggenheim fellowship at Harvard) for the rest of his life. His professional service included the Editorial Board of the Physical Review, the Proposal Review Board, and the Fellowship Board of the National Science Foundation, and membership of the Visiting Review Committee for Argonne National Laboratory.
In 1947 he was awarded the Leather Medal for bringing distinction to Indiana University. In 1962 the university honored him with the title of Distinguished Professor (which he never used, as he was extremely averse to any kind of honor). In 1971 the physics graduate students gave him their first department award for outstanding contributions to physics education. In 1976 he won the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1983 Indiana University presented him with an honorary degree of Doctor of Science. He was a teacher par excellence, who taught mostly the graduate courses in electrodynamics, classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and nuclear physics. On the first two subjects he published excellent textbooks, of which he always was particularly proud.
No physicist with a Ph.D. degree from Indiana University since 1938 was untouched by Emil's deep physical insight and inspiration. The testimony from former students, which led to his university teaching award, includes such statements as "His presentations were so clear, rhythmic, and organized that I used to equate his performance in class to that of a master painter painting right in front of us." "He lived the subject!" "Konopinski was referred to as 'The King'...by acclamation he is 'The King,' the very best!" "He truly lectured with such clarity and precision that each lecture was a beauty to behold." According to the citation on the teaching award by the physics graduate students, he had:
the rare ability to communicate difficult subject matter with enthusiasm and clarity. In the classroom he emphasized understanding of the fundamental ideas of physics as well as important applications of those ideas. Furthermore, his friendly attitude towards students encourages questions and discussion, through which such understanding evolves.
There was hardly a colleague over the last 50 years who did not, on many occasions, benefit from Emil's wisdom, intuition, and willingness to discuss any part of physics. He was a first-rate physicist and a deeply humble person who avoided all occasions to judge others. An avid and expertly knowledgeable fan of football, the Detroit Tigers, and IU basketball, he read voraciously, loved chamber music and opera, and (although he used to say that, if it hadn't been for the religious aspect, he could have been a monk) he had a large and devoted circle of friends. He died of cardiac complications on May 26, 1990. All his colleagues and former students will keenly miss this beloved, inspiring, and gentle man.
In recognition of Professor Konopinski's service to Indiana University and to its Department of Physics, be it resolved that this memorial resolution become a part of the minutes of the Bloomington Faculty Council and that copies be sent to his brother, Eugene Konrad of Detroit, Michigan; and to his sister, Marian Hansen of Los Alamos, New Mexico.