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The S-matrix paper that made me famous


The seminar series: convincing Oppenheimer
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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And the first seminar was a complete disaster because I tried to talk about what Feynman had been doing, and Oppenheimer interrupted every sentence and told me how it ought to have been said, and how if I understood the thing right it wouldn't have sounded like that. He always knew everything better, and he was a terribly bad organiser of seminars. I mean he would... he had to have the centre stage for himself and couldn't shut up, and we couldn't tell him to shut up. So in fact, there was very little communication at all.

[Q] And a great deal of frustration on your part?

Well, I felt terrible and I remember going out, after this seminar and going to Cécile for consolation, and Cécile was wonderful, I mean, she was really like a mother to me at that point.

[Q] And your feeling was if you couldn't convince Oppenheimer, then it was hopeless or...?

I don't know whether I ever felt that. I always felt Oppenheimer was a bigoted old fool. I mean I was arrogant enough to be confident that I had the stuff and sooner or later it would be accepted, but it was very irritating and frustrating not to be able to get a hearing. Anyway, Cécile was very comforting, and then that night I was walking around by myself in the dark and there was a huge aurora in the sky, it was the brightest aurora I'd ever seen and the whole sky lit up red and green and somehow that looked as though God was saying something! So after all things aren't so bad, if God is with me I'm okay! And then... so, a week later I had the second seminar and it went a little bit better, but it still was pretty bad, and so I still didn't get much of a hearing. And at that point Hans Bethe somehow heard about this and he talked with Oppenheimer on the telephone, I think.

[Q] I think he came down to Princeton and he heard, he saw you in action...

Yes, but that's after the telephone call, I think.

[Q] I see, OK.

I think that he had telephoned Oppy and said 'You really ought to listen to Dyson, you know, he really has something to say and you should listen.' And so then Bethe himself came down to the next seminar which I was giving and Oppenheimer continued to interrupt, but Bethe then came to my help and, actually, he was able to tell Oppenheimer to shut up, I mean, which only he could do.

[Q] Then Oppenheimer would listen?

Then he finally began to listen, yes!

[Q] I mean, I'm saying, he would listen to Bethe and shut up?

Yes! So the third seminar he started to listen and then, I actually gave five altogether, and so the fourth and fifth were fine, and by that time he really got interested. He began to understand that there was something worth listening to. And then, at some point, I don't remember exactly at which point, he put a little note in my mail box saying, 'nolo contendere'.

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: Richard Feynman, J Robert Oppenheimer, Cécile DeWitt-Morette, Hans Bethe

Duration: 3 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008