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Oppenheimer's parting advice


The Princeton Institute: faculty, friends, attitudes
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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I got to know Gödel quite well later on but during that year, no, I stuck strictly to the physics and I didn't talk to the mathematicians much at all because I didn't want to get embroiled. I mean, it was in a way a great opportunity missed. I could have talked to Hermann Weyl and various other people, but I didn't.

[Q] So you were really within physics.

We were - yes - and also I mean it was a case of young against old. We were very arrogant, all of us. I mean in those times, we thought the old people were simply not with it and so why bother to talk to them. That didn't really apply to Gödel, but, anyway, that was the way it was. So I don't remember ever being aware - I think it's true to say that I wasn't aware that the Institute faculty existed. There was of course no physics faculty at that time. It was only Oppenheimer and the young people.

[Q] And Pais was already a permanent member at that stage?

He certainly was not a professor anyway. Of course there was a whole faculty of professors in mathematics and history. I don't think I even knew they were there. I thought it was just all young people and few old dodderers who didn't matter.

[Q] And so if I hear your correctly, you come away from your year at the Institute, you're pleased with what you had done but not very impressed by what Oppenheimer was doing here.

Yes. I mean I think that my feeling was that this is a marvellous place because of all the young people who'd come from all over the world. I mean I made a lot of friends here - it was much more cosmopolitan than Cornell, but it was still only the young people who were really, for me, worthwhile.

[Q] And this was the year that Karplus and Kroll and these people were here with you.

Oh yes, and of course Jack Steinberger was my closest friend among that crowd, so I learned a tremendous lot from him. He was of course somebody who did both theory and experiments. I think the only one, in fact, who was really at home with experiments, and he was wonderful. And then there was David Bohm whom I got to know very well, and in fact David Bohm and I were the two bachelors who had just rooms in town and we didn't live here. So David Bohm and I would have supper together every night at Grigg's restaurant in Princeton, in Witherspoon Street, which is a wonderful place where you got soul food. It was black owned and most of the clientèle was black, and they served very good food very cheap and it was great, so Dave Bohm and I loved to eat there. And one day I got a very stiff little note from Kate Russell who was Oppenheimer's secretary, telling me that it was inappropriate for a member of the Institute to eat at Grigg's.

[Q] And your reaction was?

My reaction was that we would continue to eat at Grigg's, which we did and so that was that. But - I found that absolutely amazing, that this was still at the time when - I mean this was after all 1948 and the place was supposed to have been desegregated. Anyhow, that's the way the Institute was. I mean the Institute was supposed to be much more liberal than the university, but that was the attitude.

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, Cornell University, Princeton University, Kurt Gödel, Hermann Weyl, J Robert Oppenheimer, Abraham Pais, Jack Steinberger, David Bohm

Duration: 4 minutes, 21 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008