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Work on the Lamb shift equation

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Courses and people at Cornell
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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In Cornell I took a course, of course, from Bethe. There was, I think, an advance quantum mechanics course, which was excellent and it talked about what he knew about the Lamb shift, I mean things that he had already done, so it brought us up to date with what was going on in quantum mechanics. And I went to an experimental physics course of Wilson's. He was, of course, a wonderful experimenter, and besides that...

[Q] And this was the first time you had hands-on experience in physics, in a laboratory?

Well, yes. Actually Wilson's course was not a lab course. Wilson's course was just describing experiments, but there was also a lab course which was taught by Lyman Parrott which I took, where I for the first time got my hands on real apparatus, and so I learned a tremendous lot from that, and almost killed myself doing the Millikan oil-drop experiment. That was end of my career as an experimenter. I was laid out on the floor having put the high voltage through myself.

[Q] And so they requested you not to continue in the course?

I don't think it was that bad. I think I did actually more or less finish the course, but it was clear I wasn't cut out to be an experimenter. Because I'd always sort of had dreams that maybe I could do experiments like Fermi, and Fermi did both - but that wasn't for me. There was an excellent relationship there which also pleased me very much, between the old guard and the new. I mean, at Cornell there were a lot of old teachers who had been there for a long time and did by far the biggest share of the teaching. Lyman Parrott was one of those - and there were several others of his generation. And then there were us brilliant young guys who were brought in, who were doing all the exciting stuff, and had hardly any teaching load, and there was never slightest resentment from the old people, as far as I could tell.

[Q] And the young people were Morrison and...

Well, Morrison did a lot of teaching. But no, I mean the people who I was thinking of were more the post doc types who were really just encouraged just to do their own thing and not to have to take any responsibilities.

Born in England in 1923, Freeman Dyson 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 has published several books and, among other honours, has been 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: Cornell University, Lamb shift, Hans Bethe, EB Wilson, Edgar Wilson, Robert Millikan, Enrico Fermi, Philip Morrison

Duration: 2 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008