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Good fortune


The reasons for moving to Cornell University
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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Kemmer gave me a lot of good advice, and one of the things that I asked him was what should I do next after being in Cambridge, and he said, 'Go to America,' because he had come back from Chalk River and he knew pretty well what was going on in America, so that was the initial impetus. And the next thing he said was, 'You should go and talk to Peierls. He knows even more about what is going on.' And so at that time I had a motor bicycle and I remember very vividly going on the motor bicycle from Cambridge to Birmingham and finding Peierls, spending an afternoon talking to Peierls. That was my first meeting with Peierls and asked him what I ought to do. And he said specifically, 'Go to Cornell,' and that was because, of course, he had been very close to Hans Bethe at Los Alamos, he knew that Bethe had gone to Cornell, and so he said, 'You should try that, and that's where you could really get the kind of guidance that you need.' And in addition I talked to Sir Hugh Taylor - I mean, not Sir Hugh, Geoffrey Taylor, who was a hydrodynamicist at Cambridge and an experimenter, and I asked him the same question and he gave the same answer, he said also Cornell is the place. He had been at Los Alamos too. So I had this very excellent advice, otherwise I would never have known where to go, and I'd never heard of Cornell, I think, apart from just being told about it by these two people. In England it wasn't so well known. Everybody had heard of Harvard and Yale but nobody had heard of Cornell, and Cornell, of course, was exactly the right place. So I then got - I don't know exactly how it happened - I asked how I could actually make the arrangements to go to Cornell, and they said the thing to do is to get a Commonwealth Fellowship. Probably Peierls suggested that. So I applied for a Commonwealth Fellowship, which in those days was a standard way for graduate students to come to America from Europe - and I got an interview in London and they gave me the Fellowship.

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: USA, Chalk River Laboratories, Cambridge, Birmingham, Cornell University, Los Alamos, Cambridge University, Harvard University, Yale University, Commonwealth Fellowship, UK, 1947, New York, Nicholas Kemmer, Rudolf Peierls, Hans Bethe, Geoffrey Taylor, Hermann Bondi, Michael Pupin, Mihajlo Pupin

Duration: 2 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008