a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


Leave Princeton if Oppenheimer was sacked?


Being the laundry boy during the Oppenheimer security hearings
Freeman Dyson Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

The closest I came to Oppenheimer during the period of his hearings - he disappeared from sight, of course; the hearings went on for three weeks and his whereabouts were kept a very closely guarded secret because he didn't want the newspaper reporters getting at him, so nobody knew where he was. So the closest I came during that time was to pick up a bunch of laundry which was delivered to, I think, the American Physical Society in Washington - I was at the Physical Society meeting and so secretly this bag of laundry was delivered to me and I took it back to Princeton and got it washed and took it back to Washington. Anyway, so I served as a courier for his shirts. That was about as close as I came, but what I also remember from that meeting was meeting Hans Bethe in Washington during the hearings, and Hans said to me, 'I just had the most unpleasant conversation of my whole life with Edward Teller.' And he didn't say any more, but it was clear what it meant, that Teller had been testifying against Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe was trying to persuade him not to, and Teller went ahead and did it anyway. So that was the time when Teller and Hans Bethe ended their friendship, which had been extremely close for many years before. So it was a very sad moment for Hans. So that was the only firsthand contact I had with the proceedings. Then after the thing was over Oppenheimer came back to Princeton and he looked fine. The result of the hearings, of course, was that he lost his clearance. I considered that, actually, a good thing for us and a good thing for him. It meant that he was at the Institute full time, instead of being in Washington, so that he was able to give his mind to the Institute much more than he did before, and I felt he was happier after the hearings than he was before. He seemed to be more relaxed. I didn't at all have the feeling that he had been spiritually destroyed or anything of that kind. I mean, there were a lot of people said that, but I didn't see it. To me he seemed to be considerably relieved: the thing was over and now he could get back to doing science, and that's what he wanted. That's what he said at the time. So he came back to Princeton and life actually became rather more interesting than before, and he was much more available for conversations about science.

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: Oppenheimer security hearing, American Physical Society, APS, Washington DC, Princeton University, Institute of Advanced Study, J Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller

Duration: 3 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008