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The S-matrix paper that made me famous
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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I wrote the S-matrix paper over Christmas. Because the S-matrix paper needed a lot more work. It was a much more ambitious programme. It meant proving the whole series could be done all the way. The original radiation theory paper was only to second order and I had to prove that everything worked to all orders of perturbation theory and so on. So that took a while.

[Q] But it was already in your mind to try to do the general problem?

Yes. It became clear that it was the S-matrix that we were talking about, so then, it was in probably October, November, December, I worked out the S-matrix theory and then wrote it up over Christmas, and I remember going to a tea party with Wigner - I never really got to know Wigner well, but he invited me to tea which was nice and his wife was very hospitable. I think, again, Cécile and I were invited and I was going out with Cécile a lot at that time, although I never had the slightest romantic feelings about Cécile but she was such a great person, so we got along very well. Anyway, so we went to tea with Wigner and just as we were walking in at the door, suddenly I realised that divergences could overlap, that the whole S-matrix technique depended on divergences not overlapping, but in fact they did overlap and so the whole thing was no doubt completely wrong. So I walked into Wigner's house with this sudden...

[Q] Insight...

Realisation the whole bottom had fallen out of it! So I was rather inattentive during the tea party. And then, afterwards, I came home and tried to work out the overlapping divergences but I never really got them straight, so it remained a loose end. So I wrote the S-matrix paper without really settling the problem of overlapping divergences, which afterwards Abdus Salam actually did. So I left it for him actually to clean it up, and so it was a matter of faith whether you believed that it was going to work. But I wrote the paper anyhow and published it because I couldn't deal with the overlapping divergences. They really were very hard to do. And then, so after that paper was published, then suddenly I became famous and my life changed, from ever afterwards...

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: Dyson series, S-matrix, Eugene Wigner, Cécile DeWitt-Morette, Abdus Salam

Duration: 2 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008