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Flunking my exam in an interesting way


Choosing physics
Jeremy Bernstein Scientist
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Berkhoff said, 'Well, you've got to make this choice.' And I knew I didn't… I knew I was not going to be able to be a creative mathematician. I didn't want to be a math teacher, I didn't know what I was going to be. So I said, well, I guess I'll go into physics. I walked into the Physics Department and said, 'Well, I want to transfer to physics'.

And I had essentially no physics courses. I mean, look at my record, and you've got a C in sophomore physics or something and I'd taken Schwinger's course and I had a B or something or maybe some A or A minus or something. And I really didn't know any real physics. I knew some of the mathematics of physics. With George Mackey, I had studied Hilbert space and one thing and another. So they said, 'Well, yes, you… we'll accept you. But you have to take an exam in experimental physics or something'. I said, 'Oh'. They said, 'In order to train for this exam, we want you to work for a summer at the Harvard Cyclotron Lab, and you can learn how experiments are done'. I said, 'Oh, all right.' Well, actually, unless you're actually doing the experiment, the assistants do the donkey work. You pile lead bricks, you cut down bits of Styrofoam for targets. You don't learn any physics. I didn't learn any physics at all. I learned how to pile lead bricks.

Born in 1929, Jeremy Bernstein is an American physicist, educator and writer known for the clarity of his writing for the lay reader on the major issues of modern physics. After graduating from Harvard University, Bernstein worked at Harvard and at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. In 1962 he became an Associate Professor of Physics at New York University, and later a Professor of Physics at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, a position he continues to hold. He was also on the staff of The New Yorker magazine.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Harvard University, The Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory, Derek Bruff, George Mackey

Duration: 1 minute, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: 15th June 2011

Date story went live: 17 August 2011