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Ken Wilson's work with the renormalization group

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The conversations with Landau and his group–although we… they were carried on in a very friendly manner, didn't get anywhere. They kept saying, ‘Well, show what's wrong with our method.’ We said, ‘Well, your method is just adding up a few leading logs. Now, we looked into it more deeply. We have this formula that applies to all orders and presumably is non-perturbative. And you can see that the different cases depend on what happens to the psi of x function at very large x–some people would say beta over the square root of x at very large square root of x but it's the same thing. And you… and you can't possibly tell that from the first few orders of perturbation theory.’

[Q] Were you impressed by Landau?

In a way, but I generally like people who are more open, and I was much more impressed therefore with Yabe [sic] Zel'dovich. But of course over there in the pecking order Landau was much higher than Zel'dovich and Landau used to make fun of Zel'dovich all the time. In fact there's a terribly sad story that's also funny. You know that Landau suffered this horrible automobile accident between Moscow and Dubna, and his brain was very seriously damaged. He couldn't really do scientific work any more after that and he’d lost a lot of short-term memory. I couldn't bear to go in and see him after the accident in ’64, but I was told that if I had he would probably have recognized me and spoken to me in English, but that a minute or two later he wouldn't have remembered that… that he had spoken to me and he would say hello all over again and so on. It's terrible. But anyway, the story is that after he recovered a bit from the accident and was able to talk and so on, one of the first things he said was ‘I'm afraid my brain is just not the same as it was. I'll never again be able to do physics like Landau. Maybe I could do physics like Zel'dovich.’ But anyway, I really preferred Zel'dovich because it seemed to me he was a much more open, much more flexible person. Landau was so stubborn.

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: Moscow, Russia, Dubna, Lev Landau, Yakov Zel'dovich

Duration: 2 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008