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Oscar Hahn


Other tutors at Cambridge: Dirac, Jeffreys, Eddington
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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Yes there were several, actually, other people I had lectures from. [Paul] Dirac's lectures were a terrible disappointment. He just read verbatim from his book, and when anybody asked him if he could explain it more clearly, he would say, well, it's already explained clearly in the book, so what more do you want? So it was very unsatisfying and so I learned quantum mechanics only much later. I mean, I did not learn it from Dirac. It was his... that way of reaching quantum mechanics, just... to me was incomprehensible. He took... he takes, so much for granted. So I had no concept of the physics which led to quantum mechanics.

[Q] And you had not read Dirac before?

Oh, I had read his book, that's why it was so disappointing. So I learned absolutely nothing new and even Dirac's book is a very bad way of learning quantum mechanics, at least for me. It didn't work.

[Q] There were no problems?

Exactly! It didn't give you any idea of what you had to do. So I finally learned quantum mechanics from [Leonard] Schiff, which is a much more practical textbook. I also went to the lectures of [Harold] Jeffreys which were great fun; he is a geophysicist who was still there - he was quite old. So he was there and he gave a course of lectures on geophysical dynamics in which I was the entire audience, and I found that wonderful, that he would take the trouble to give these lectures, and so I faithfully turned up every time and he would appear in cap and gown and stand at the blackboard and lecture. And there was Eddington, who was also exciting. He taught general relativity; although I'd also read his book, but his lectures were more interesting because he went beyond his book and talked about all sorts of crazy things that he was doing himself.

[Q] And this was now - he was beyond fundamental theory and things like that?

Yes. So we heard about his crazy stuff, but he was very fair. He always said, you know, he made a clear distinction between what was generally accepted and what wasn't. So he would say, 'Now, what I'm going to tell you now is my own stuff, but it's not part of general relativity as normally understood.'

[Q] Was he a pacifist?

Yes, he was a Quaker so for him it was sort of just a normal part of life. It wasn't so much a political pacifism; it was religious pacifism.

[Q] And anyone else that comes to mind in terms of....

Of lectures, no. I think those were the six that I remember. There may have been others. But it was a great time, but quite brief because we really were only there for a year and a half, then in summer '43...

[Q] You go to...

I went to Bomber Command.

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: Lectures on Quantum Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Paul Dirac, Leonard I Schiff, Harold Jeffreys, Arthur Eddington

Duration: 3 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008