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The importance of understanding a statement and its opposite


Drinking tea with Niels Bohr
Edward Teller Scientist
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Now, I want to tell you about an experience, or a few experiences with another of the great men of that age, perhaps greater than Einstein if one should apply any measure in these things, I mean Niels Bohr. He was Heisenberg's teacher and on the strong recommendation of Heisenberg, I went, in one of the vacation periods, to visit Copenhagen and I was sat down at the, the first tea party right next to Bohr. And with all of my twenty-one or twenty-two years, I was foolish enough to give something of a lecture to Niels Bohr, really not a statement of facts, a statement of hopes. I said- What we are doing here, quantum mechanics, we develop and in the future, classical physics, which is obviously full of contradictions between we- waves and particles, will no longer be taught. People will learn Schrödinger's equations, probability distributions, all the consistent things that we know. I went on for a little while but I had increasing the feeling that with Bohr I was a little less than a full success. In fact, as I was talking, his eye got closed and I tried to end my statement as soon as I could. I ended it. And there sits Bohr not saying a word, for an eternity, I think it lasted for half a minute. And then he said- Yes, yes. You might just as well say that we are not sitting here and drinking tea but that we are dreaming all of this. A good friend of mine about whom I might tell you a little more later, Weizsäcker, Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker, was sitting at that table. We stayed together in the same pension. I asked him- What did Bohr mean? He couldn't tell me either. I was obviously worried. I- after all, all I did is to say- now we have the truth. The truth announced by Bohr. And Bohr didn't like it. I can't quite assert that I understand now what he was thinking but I have something of a guess. Bohr liked paradoxes. I wanted to eliminate contradictions. He liked those contradictions. And what I said so far is true, what I am now going to tell you is probably true. And Bohr liked contradictions with good reason. He thought - he told some of us so later, in a more or less complicated manner, but with a clear theme song - the simple, straightforward way, how we see the world, this is a chair, this is a ring. It is a not a wave function, it is something that I can describe and understand. If I don't start from such ideas, then I can't possibly know what I am talking about. You must start from practical theory with all the contradictions that a detailed observation then lead to. Then, as a next step, you resolve these contradictions. But what I tried to tell him then; in the future the children will be raised in the world free of contradictions- No sir, we are not drinking tea, we are just dreaming all of this.

The late Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller helped to develop the atomic bomb and provided the theoretical framework for the hydrogen bomb. During his long and sometimes controversial career he was a staunch advocate of nuclear power and also of a strong defence policy, calling for the development of advanced thermonuclear weapons.

Listeners: John H. Nuckolls

John H. Nuckolls was Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1988 to 1994. He joined the Laboratory in 1955, 3 years after its establishment, with a masters degree in physics from Columbia. He rose to become the Laboratory's Associate Director for Physics before his appointment as Director in 1988.

Nuckolls, a laser fusion and nuclear weapons physicist, helped pioneer the use of computers to understand and simulate physics phenomena at extremes of temperature, density and short time scales. He is internationally recognised for his work in the development and control of nuclear explosions and as a pioneer in the development of laser fusion.

Duration: 5 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008