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How World War II affected the graduate program at Yale


The eccentric Gregory Breit
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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Gregory Breit arrived from Wisconsin, and he was supposed to bring the latest in physics and I, as an undergraduate, I took his graduate courses, but he was so strange. He was very bright, Breit. Breit was very bright, but he was extremely strange, psychotic really. And it was very difficult to deal with him. He permitted no questions. If anyone asked a question he left the room and wouldn't come back until some of his students that he had brought with him from Wisconsin went out into the hall and begged him to return, saying, ‘Well, these Yale students don't understand the rules, they don't understand how wrong it is to ask a question, and they promise never to ask any more questions. Please, come back and teach some more’. Then he would come back and teach. Another thing that wasn't permitted was reading books. Sometimes after class, when it was permitted to ask a question, someone would ask him a question, and he would say, ‘I can tell! You've read a book!’ For example Bethe's Little Book [of Scientific Principles] was forbidden and… another thing you mustn't do was to learn about general relativity. He said it was very bad for young students to learn about general relativity. They get all sorts of big ideas and they want to combine general relativity with quantum mechanics and so on and so on, and they get led off into paths that lead nowhere. They… they go off on paths that lead nowhere and it’s very bad. And so, if anybody asked him a question connected with general relativity, he flew into a rage. A very strange man.

[Q] So by the time you graduated there, did you feel you were a physicist?

Well, I didn't know, I didn't… no, no I certainly didn't feel I was a physicist. My father had always filled me with this idea that really understanding things was way in the future, because he had struggled so hard to understand Einstein and so on and so forth, and he gave me the impression that these things were very difficult. Just the opposite of Margenau who said they were all very easy – and showed us that they were all very easy.

 [Q] So that must have been very important, I mean Margenau's role seems like it was extremely important in your development.

And who were the other students in that class? Paul MacCready, my best friend, Harold Morowitz, whom I see all the time now at the Santa Fe Institute, and so on.

New York-born physicist Murray Gell-Mann (1929-2019) was known for his creation of the eightfold way, an ordering system for subatomic particles, comparable to the periodic table. His discovery of the omega-minus particle filled a gap in the system, brought the theory wide acceptance and led to Gell-Mann's winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969.

Listeners: Geoffrey West

Geoffrey West is a Staff Member, Fellow, and Program Manager for High Energy Physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is also a member of The Santa Fe Institute. He is a native of England and was educated at Cambridge University (B.A. 1961). He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1966 followed by post-doctoral appointments at Cornell and Harvard Universities. He returned to Stanford as a faculty member in 1970. He left to build and lead the Theoretical High Energy Physics Group at Los Alamos. He has numerous scientific publications including the editing of three books. His primary interest has been in fundamental questions in Physics, especially those concerning the elementary particles and their interactions. His long-term fascination in general scaling phenomena grew out of his work on scaling in quantum chromodynamics and the unification of all forces of nature. In 1996 this evolved into the highly productive collaboration with James Brown and Brian Enquist on the origin of allometric scaling laws in biology and the development of realistic quantitative models that analyse the influence of size on the structural and functional design of organisms.

Tags: Wisconsin, Santa Fe Institute, Gregory Breit, Hans Bethe, Albert Einstein, Henry Margenau, Paul MacCready, Harold Morowitz

Duration: 2 minutes, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008