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Student days: living hand-to-mouth


Taking courses at Harvard
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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MIT graduate students were allowed to take any courses they wanted to at Harvard.

[Q] So did you meet [Julian] Schwinger at that stage?

So I took... well, I signed up for Schwinger's course, the first year, but it was taught instead by Norman Ramsey, and it was very nice. I got to know Norman Ramsey a little bit and I learned some things about… what…  what’s it called – spin… spin precession. The kinds of things he had done in… in Robby's lab and he then did in his own lab and so forth. That was interesting.

And then the following year, I signed up again for Schwinger's course, and this time Schwinger actually appeared. And he had very strange teaching habits. He would come in very late and he would begin in the upper left-hand corner of the blackboard and just write equations and equations and equations and equations, and then he would finish in the lower right-hand corner of the blackboard just at the moment when lunch in the cafeteria was no longer being served, 20 minutes after the supposed end of the class. He had come in 20 minutes late, he finished 20 minutes late; people often couldn't get to lunch in time, and he did this so that people wouldn't come and ask him questions afterwards, because he had a lot of students, a lot of PhD students and a lot of other students and he didn't want them to pester him.

[Q] By the time I sat in on that same course, many, many years later, he would start as the bell began, and he would finish with a period as the bell rang, and he would walk out of the class.

Oh, I see.

[Q] And you could never catch him.

What was in common between the two was that he finished and then left.

[Q] Yes.

Anyway, I didn't get much out of his lectures which were so beautiful because they just passed through one somehow like mineral oil, they didn't… they didn't leave any residue.

[Q] Were you exposed to [Richard] Feynman... were you exposed to Feynman’s techniques, not... not, obviously not in Schwinger's class, but I mean anywhere in the Cambridge area?

Oh, yes, yes. Viki [Victor Weisskopf] wanted me to read Dick's papers and to learn about the methods, and I did. I learned about them. That was one… that was one of the things that I found exciting. I was a little disappointed to work on the dissertation in nuclear physics, because I would have preferred elementary particle physics.

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: MIT, Harvard University, Cambridge MA, Julian Schwinger, Norman Ramose, Richard Feynman

Duration: 2 minutes, 16 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008