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The Shelter Island Conference
Hans Bethe Scientist
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The Shelter Island Conference in the summer of 1947 was outstanding, it was unique. I have never before or after attended any conference which was so influential. It brought together a lot of the leading theoretical physicists of the United States. It included Oppenheimer and Weisskopf and me, and it also included Linus Pauling. It included younger people like Feynman and Pais. And I don't think I could name all the people. It also included a number of experimenters, for instance, Rabi, and a group around him. It included a very important foreign theorist, Kramers, who had thought a lot about electrodynamics, quantum electrodynamics, during the war. Kramers told us that we really had misunderstood the self energy of the electron. He told us that, after all, the free electron has a self energy interacting with its own electric field, and that self energy is included when we measure the mass of the electron. And therefore, that self energy, which a free electron has, is already included, one shouldn't include it once more by calculating it. So never mind that it gives an infinite answer, you just disregard the self energy of the free electron, you have to consider the difference in free energy between the free energy [electron] and, let's say, an electron bound in the hydrogen atom, and only the difference was what counted.

The late German-American physicist Hans Bethe once described himself as the H-bomb's midwife. He left Nazi Germany in 1933, after which he helped develop the first atomic bomb, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 for his contribution to the theory of nuclear reactions, advocated tighter controls over nuclear weapons and campaigned vigorously for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

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: Shelter Island Conference, 1947, US, J Robert Oppenheimer, Linus Pauling, Victor Weisskopf, Richard Feynman, Abraham Pais, II Rabi, Hans Kramers

Duration: 2 minutes, 47 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008