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The seminar series: convincing Oppenheimer


Trying to convince Oppenheimer that the old physics works
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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And then we met Oppenheimer and I wanted to talk about this in the seminar at the Institute, and somehow or other Oppenheimer wasn't enthusiastic at all. It came as a big shock to me that we'd done this wonderful stuff and I desperately wanted to tell Oppenheimer about it, that was the whole point in coming to Princeton. And Oppenheimer just brushed us off and said, 'Well, you know, that's not leading anywhere,' and he had somehow got convinced that you couldn't do physics at all with these old methods. He considered this all old stuff and what physics needed was something radically new. This is of course a common situation; that the people who have failed to clean up a subject then don't believe that it can be cleaned up, so they're looking for something totally different. And then if somebody comes along and says, 'Look, it works,' they don't believe. So that was how it was, and so we had a very hard time to get Oppenheimer's attention. And I think Niels Bohr had a very bad effect on Oppenheimer too, because I mean Niels Bohr, at that time, was convinced that physics had to be radically different if it was going to work; and Heisenberg, all the old gentlemen of those days, they'd lived through this radical revolution of quantum mechanics which was so successful, they wanted to have something like that again. They thought a new revolution, like 1925, was needed. All the old people tried to do that, including Max Born and Heisenberg and Schrödinger, I mean each of them had radical proposals which turned out to be totally useless, and in the meantime it was the young people who actually were the conservatives; from this point of view even Feynman was a conservative. I mean he went back to the old physics and made it work, and that was what Schwinger did too, and what I was doing. So we were conservative in the sense that we used the old physical concepts of quantum electrodynamics exactly the same as Heisenberg and Pauli in the 1920s, and actually made the mathematics work and got the right answers. And that came a surprise to Oppenheimer. It was very hard for him even to listen to it.

[Q] Was there also a partiality toward Schwinger, in contrast to Feynman?

Well, Oppenheimer was even hostile to Schwinger at that time. It was strange. Schwinger had been his student and earlier he had been very enthusiastic about Schwinger, but somehow he came back from Europe that summer, or the fall of 1948, convinced that the whole thing didn't work, that you had to start completely afresh, including Schwinger. Schwinger was not good, I mean, he was clever but he wasn't - he wasn't deep. Anyway - so finally Uhlenbeck interceded with Oppenheimer. Uhlenbeck had come to Princeton for that year, and Uhlenbeck persuaded Oppenheimer, 'Let's listen to Dyson,' and so Oppenheimer put on a seminar series for me to talk about the new stuff, and so I had the chance at least to talk.

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: Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, 1925, 1920s, 1948, J Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli, George Uhlenbeck, Julian Schwinger

Duration: 3 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008