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Biology: talents versus interests


Inspirational chemistry teacher: Eric James
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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We did have classes in physics and chemistry at the school and there was a good physics teacher who was very pedestrian, but still I mean quite sound; and a chemistry teacher who was a genius, who never taught us any chemistry but read poetry instead, because he said you get the chemistry out of books and we didn't really have enough apparatus to do real chemistry. I mean the kind of the experiments we could do would be only Mickey Mouse experiments. So he decided just to use the time to read us all the modern poetry which he was in love with, and I remember especially he was in love with Cecil Day Lewis and he read us the poems of Day Lewis which I still love. His name was Eric James, and it was extraordinary luck to have him as a teacher, because he afterwards became a great man and in fact he ended his life in the House of Lords as Baron James of Rusholme and he was the founder of the University of York and did enormous public service. But at that time he was a humble schoolmaster; because of the Depression, no doubt, he couldn't get an academic job, but he loved teaching and he gave us everything he had, which was poetry. And so my taste for literature comes very largely from him. And in the meantime, I learned chemistry from Christopher Longuet-Higgins who was already much more of an expert and more excited about chemistry than Eric James. And I remember Christopher bringing to Winchester some crystals of stannic iodide which he had made, which is the most marvelous stuff. It is a brilliant scarlet colour and it makes these beautiful scarlet crystals, and they're also extremely heavy. If you have a little bottle full of it, it feels like lead. So that kind of chemistry I found delightful, just the sort of details of the actual stuff, rather than the theory that lay behind it. I remember the joy when, here in Princeton, Willard Libby came on a visit once and brought along another little bottle of chemicals, which also was very heavy, and that was barium xenate, which was barium xenon oxide, which of course was an absolute revelation because nobody imagined that xenon could have compounds, being an inert gas. And it was sometime in the 1950s these compounds were discovered, and barium xenate is just such an ordinary stuff. It's a sort of heavy white crystals which are completely stable, they don't show any signs of anything strange and there it is. If you heat them up of course the xenon comes bubbling off.

Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), who was born in England, moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He published several books and, among other honours, was awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Winchester College, House of Lords, University of York, Great Depression, Princeton University, 1950s, Cecil Day-Lewis, Baron James of Rusholme, Eric James, Christopher Longuet-Higgins, Willard Libby

Duration: 3 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008