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Nicholas Metropolis

June 11, 2010

When most people hear the word, Metropolis, they likely recall the fictional abode of Clark Kent and Superman. Some film buffs may remember the 1927 Fritz Lang film by that name. When I hear the word, I think of Nicholas Metropolis, one of the first scientists to use computers for modeling physical systems. Today (June 11) is the anniversary of his birth.

Nicholas Metropolis

Nicholas Metropolis.

Nicholas Metropolis (1915-1999), was a Greek-American physicist who participated in the Manhattan Project. He was among the first group of fifty scientists to be hired by Robert Oppenheimer to work at Los Alamos. This was not surprising, since Metropolis obtained his PhD in 1941 at the University of Chicagoo where Enrico Fermi built the first nuclear reactor. For a few years after World War II, Metropolis was a professor at the University of Chicago, but he returned to Los Alamos in 1948 to build the MANIAC series of computers. The name, MANIAC, was Metropolis' little joke. He proposed it as a way to end the trend for acronym-named computers; but his joke backfired when the name was actually used. [1]

Metropolis capitalized on his having the first useful computers at Los Alamos. One innovation was the development of the computational Monte Carlo method, a wonderful modeling tool that's used in many fields. The Monte Carlo method was published in a 1953 paper with several collaborators[2, 3], but Metropolis had done calculations of this sort on the ENIAC computer in 1948. Metropolis credited this method to Fermi, who had used this approach, necessarily without a computer, many years earlier. I mentioned the Monte Carlo method in two previous articles [4, 5]. Metropolis extended the Monte Carlo method using Markov chains to extract random samples from a probability distribution. This allows an easy way to create an approximate histogram for the distribution. [6]

Metropolis, at the request of Emilio Segré, had the honor of naming two chemical elements, Technetium (element 43) and Astatine (element 85). These names are derived from the Greek Τεχνητος, meaning "artificial," and Αστατος, meaning "unstable." [1]


  1. Metropolis, Nicholas Constantine (1915-1999) on scienceworld.wolfram.com.
  2. N. Metropolis, A. W. Rosenbluth, M. N. Rosenbluth, A. H. Teller, and E. Teller, "Equation of State Calculations by Fast Computing Machines," Journal of Chemical Physics, vol. 21, no. 6 (1953), pp.1087-1092.
  3. "Equation of State Calculations by Fast Computing Machines" on Wikipedia.
  4. Traffic Modeling (This Blog, April 7, 2008).
  5. Baseball Statistics (This Blog, April 4, 2008)
  6. Herbert Anderson, "Metropolis, Monte Carlo and the MANIAC," Los Alamos Science No. 14 (PDF File).
  7. "Metropolis-Hastings Algorithm" on Wikipedia.

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