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Theoretical physics discussion group at Chicago

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The atmosphere was one of competition because, oh, there were by now very few jobs of the kind that we thought we would like to have, namely assistant professorships at… ten-year track assistant professorships at distinguished universities. By this time people coming out of the war or people finishing their education just after the war and so on, had pretty much filled up all those positions so that in the spring of ’51 for example, there was not much available. The one job of that kind that was offered was a professorship… an assistant professorship at Indiana, which they gave to Keith Brueckner. And otherwise people found jobs as, you know, found second post-doctoral positions or various other things, or they tried to stay around at the institute for another year or whatever. Now of course I was there for two halves of academic years and at the end of that time I didn't request help with finding a job because Murph Goldberger found me one. We had become friends when he was a post-doc at MIT and we shared an office with other people as well, but we talked a lot and we even worked together a little bit on various things. And, so he was now in a… he had turned down an assistant professorship at Harvard and accepted one instead at Chicago, where he had done his graduate work. And he prevailed on the Institute of Nuclear Studies at Chicago to offer me an instructorship. Well I asked Frank Yang about it, because I got to know him quite well at the Institute for Advanced Study, and he and I had many conversations about physics, tried to understand a number of things together. So I asked him about it. I said ‘You had that job, didn't you?’ He said, ‘Yes’. I said, ‘Well, what is it like? Are… are there many instructors?"’He said, ‘You'll be the only one’. I said, ‘Is there any chance of an instructor being offered a promotion?’ He said, ‘Almost certainly’. And the salary was quite good and the teaching load extremely low, so I thought I would just take it rather than looking for some phantom assistant professorship somewhere that didn't exist. This way I was at a premier institution. Not only that, but my friend Murph was there and we could work together and I would get to know Fermi and various other famous physicists. But I would also get to know Harold Urey in chemistry, and Szilárd, Leó ,who has gone… who had gone from physics to biology and many, many other distinguished people.

New York-born physicist Murray Gell-Mann is 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: Institute of Nuclear Studies, Chicago, Institute for Advanced Study, University of Chicago, Keith Brueckner, Murph Goldberger, Frank Yang, Enrico Fermi, Harold Urey, Leó Szilárd

Duration: 3 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008