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Presenting Schwinger, Feynman and Dyson's ideas at Birmingham


Freeman Dyson: An excellent graduate
Hans Bethe Scientist
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Then there was another young man who was with me, namely Freeman Dyson. He was an Englishman who had studied mathematics in the Tripos at Cambridge. And, GI Taylor, who was a professor at Cambridge, not in physics but in hydrodynamics. GI Taylor, whom we... I knew very well from Los Alamos, who had consulted for us, wrote me a letter. 'Well, I have here a graduate student,' in typical English understatement, 'who is not entirely stupid. It would be nice if you would take him on as a graduate student.' So I wrote back that I would be glad to take him on. And it turned out that Dyson knew everything. I gave him a problem, namely to do the Lamb shift now, not for an electron which has spin a half, but for a particle of spin zero. And I thought this would be a thesis problem. Well, he came back in... in about two weeks, asking some questions which I couldn't answer, but he found the answers himself, and in two more weeks, he came back with the answer. The Lamb shift was very similar for a particle of spin zero, and I told him 'Well, OK, now you write this up and publish it.' He was astonished that this was enough to be published. But it was, I think maybe it came just about the same time as... as the publications by the... by Schwinger and Feynman, maybe it was a little earlier.

So Dyson was very much interested in Feynman's work, and talked to Feynman constantly, following Feynman's developments. And he... knew about Schwinger's work, he went to... to Ann Arbor to listen to Schwinger at the summer conference. And then Dyson was able to show that Schwinger's approach and Feynman's approach were really equivalent, which was not at all obvious because they seemed totally different. Dyson, after spending a year here, went to the Institute of Advanced Studies, on my suggestion, and Oppenheimer gave him a hard time. Oppenheimer had really not understood Feynman's work. And it took a long time before Oppenheimer recognized that Dyson was a really excellent physicist. In fact, it took an invited lecture by myself to present Feynman's theories to Oppenheimer's seminar, I think only after that, Oppenheimer came around to Dyson and said 'Well, maybe you are right, and maybe this is a good theory.'

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: Cambridge University, Los Alamos, Lamb shift, Ann Arbor, Institute for Advanced Study, Feynman diagrams, Freeman Dyson, J Robert Oppenheimer, GI Taylor, Julian Schwinger, Richard Feynman

Duration: 4 minutes, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008