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Being the laundry boy during the Oppenheimer security hearings


Why I don't like the PhD system
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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[Q] You stay in Cornell for two years and then you go to the Institute. Do you want to say a few words, besides the experience of meson nucleon scattering at Cornell, about life at the university there, and what made you decide to come to the Institute, to accept an invitation to the Institute in '53?

Yes. This was a hard choice, because I was spiritually much more at home at Cornell. Cornell is a much warmer place. It's a real community, partly because of Hans. I mean Hans made it like that, but even without Hans - it's a place which commands enormous loyalty. I mean the friends that we made at Cornell 40 years ago, a lot of them are still there. These people just never leave, including Hans himself, who's now been there for 60 years. And so I felt very much at home there and sort of spiritually I still feel more at home in Ithaca than I do in Princeton. So there were these strong forces keeping me at Cornell. Cornell had always been my vision of America, whereas Princeton is not. Princeton is definitely an alien growth in America. Ithaca is the real thing. So from that point of view I would have preferred to stay in Ithaca, and also I love the people there. But I hated the PhD system, and that was what - I felt basically out of tune with the main job I had at Cornell, which was to train PhD students. The whole PhD system to me is an abomination. I don't have a PhD myself, I feel myself very lucky I didn't have to go through it. I think it's a gross distortion of the educational process. What happens when I'm responsible for a PhD student, the student is condemned to work on a single problem in order to write a thesis, for maybe two or three years. But my attention span is much shorter than that. I like to work on something intensively for maybe one year or less, get it done with and then go on to something else. So my style just doesn't fit this PhD cycle. What would happen, a PhD student would want to go on working on a problem for two or three years, but I would lose interest before he was finished. And so there was a basic mismatch between the way I like to do physics and this straightjacket which was imposed on the students. And so I found it was very frustrating, and of course this meson nucleon scattering was a part of that, but it wasn't only the meson nucleon scattering; all the PhD students had these same constraints imposed on them, which I basically disapprove of. I just don't like the system. I think it is an evil system and it has ruined many lives. So that was the down side of Cornell, whereas at Princeton I was offered a job at the Institute for Advanced Study which works on a one year cycle. We have only post docs at this Institute here, so the post docs arrive each year, then they can decide what they want to do. I can collaborate with a post doc for a year, I don't have to keep him fed for the next two or three years after that. So at the end of six months or a year we can say goodbye and I can go and do something else, he can go and do something else if he likes. It's a much more flexible system, and it suits my style much better. So that was a strong reason for coming to Princeton. In addition to that, of course, there was the question of salary, which is never negligible since by that time I had a wife and three kids, and when I arrived at Cornell as a professor, I thought I was rich. I had a salary of $8,000 a year, which to me at that time seemed great wealth. But after living in Ithaca for two years with a wife and three kids, or the third kid just arrived at the end of the time in Ithaca, we found $8,000 dollars wasn't really much, and at Princeton I was offered twelve and a half. So that was a big consideration, that twelve and a half was real wealth, and so that was a good reason to move, and I don't make any bones about that. And in addition, of course, the Institute was a great opportunity. It was something that I had in a way dreamed of, of becoming a professor at the Institute. It carried a certain amount of glory even then, and - anyway, it was an opportunity I couldn't turn down. And I think it did work out for the best for everybody, since my job at Cornell was taken by Ed Salpeter who did magnificently there, and he's still there and he was certainly more appropriate for the job than I was. So I think I did a favour to Cornell by leaving, in a certain way. Anyway, I think it suited us both the way it was, and so the decision was made. Another reason which might be worth mentioning was that the the second year in Cornell, Hans was in Los Alamos all the time, and that was very disagreeable to everybody. First of all, I mean, without Hans, just Cornell wasn't the same and we missed him very much, and everybody was a little bit depressed, just because Hans wasn't there. And also it meant the teaching loads were heavier and it was a general feeling that it wasn't a very happy place. And of course, in addition then we'd lost Dick Feynman, and so neither Hans Bethe nor Dick Feynman were still there.

[Q] In fact you were the replacement.

I replaced Feynman, which of course meant I didn't have Feynman there. But it wasn't the same Cornell that I had known as a student.

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: Cornell University, 1953, Institute for Advanced Study, Ithica, Princeton University, USA: Los Alamos, Hans Bethe, Edwin Salpeter, Richard Feynman

Duration: 6 minutes, 57 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008