Victor Weisskopf, “My Life at LNS” - LNS46 Symposium: On the Matter of Particles

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MODERATOR: We hear next from Viki. Fred has stimulated a lot of recollections. And I think I'll have to curb myself from referring to rattlesnakes in the desert. There were a Bolivian revolution encountered by that group, on and on. And the other thing that comes to mind is Zacharias once saying that we have accelerators like other people have mice.

And in any case, Viki needs no introduction. I only need note that he was one of the prime people Zach turned to to build on what was already here. And Viki responded with his usual good measure. I think Fred has touched on much of it. I don't need to repeat it. So I simply turn to-- I think we know him as the never cool and forever passionate Viki.


WEISSKOPF: Now let's install the-- let's see.




WEISSKOPF: You hear me. Well, I am supposed to talk about my life at LNS in the framework of the old days. So that is perfectly correct, since I belong to the old days. It's, of course, very difficult to speak of 46 years. which I spend here, in 35 minutes, but I will try. We'll see how far I come.

You see, I came, actually, to this country 55 years ago. First to Rochester, where I got an offer as an instructor, and then assistant professor. And in '43, Oppenheimer asked me to come to Los Alamos.

And all the time in Rochester, my wife and I wanted, actually, to come to the Cambridge area, where there is so much culture, music, and everything, science, and so many friends. So we were very happy when at the end of Los Alamos, where we became so terribly famous for making this terrible weaon, that Zacharias came to hire people for MIT. Well, MIT is in Cambridge. So I was very glad about this. And I accepted right away.

Together, as you know, he came there to get a few people who were here, among others, Bruno Rossi, Martin Deutsch, and Woodward, and some others. And we were supposed to start here, the fundamental physics, which was already here, but perhaps not very active. So it was a pleasure to come here and begin, again, to deal with physics, with real physics, after what we had to do in Los Alamos.

Now, Zacharias promised an easy life here. He spoke about LNS, that the Laboratory of Nuclear Science will be established, and will help us in every respect. Of it did. And I must say, with a certain pride and perhaps a certain shame, that in all my life, I never wrote a request for money to Washington, because all this was done by LNS, by [INAUDIBLE] and others. So I just have told them what I want, and I got it.

Now, I think that-- I'm not sure whether it's unique. But I think it is unique that to spend a active scientific life and never write a proposal. And I will stick to it to the end of my life. Now

Now, I came 1946. And of course, at that time, at the beginning of 1946, it was very difficult to find housing here. We had great trouble. And my family, with the small children, had to live in Cape Cod for half a year, because the house wasn't ready.

But it was just great fun to be really back again in fundamental physics. Nuclear physics, of course, was also done in Los Alamos. But field theory, electrodynamics, and all this. And to work with such wonderful people. First of all, Herman Feshbach. I will talk about this later. And the young staff here. And the [INAUDIBLE] Fran Friedman, who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, John Blatt, Amos [INAUDIBLE], and [? Amon ?] [? Darr, ?] and some others.

And graduate students. And I must say, I really had excellent graduate students. And I mention only a few. Bruce French, Murray Gell-Man, [? Claude ?] Gottfried, Arthur [INAUDIBLE], Dave Peaslee, [? Carson ?] Wang, and so on.

Now, back to physics. Of course, physics activities at that time were interrupted by sort of physics and real politics, by talks about the bomb, and the desire of an international committee to deal with nuclear affairs, to begin with the Federation of American Scientists, and the Emergency Committee Against Nuclear War with Einstein, and all this. So it wasn't only physics, but it was mostly physics.

The beginning, of course, of all that return to physics was the Shelter Island Conference in 1947 that Oppenheimer organized and [INAUDIBLE] organized, where we discussed all the where we have to get again into the work. And that was, of course, a sensational meeting, because Lamb-Retherford announced the measurement of the Lamb shift at that time.

And let me just tell you an anecdote to describe the fame of the physicists at that time because of the bomb that ended the war. At the end of the conference, Oppenheimer had to go very quickly to Cambridge, because that was a time when Marshall, General Marshall, was supposed to announce the Marshall Plan, and [? Opie ?] wanted to be there. So he hired a plane, and invited a few people, Bruno Rossi, myself, and I think Herman, also, Herman Fishbach, to go with him in that plane.

And that was a little plane. And the weather became very nasty. And in New London, the pilot said, I don't know what to do, because I should actually land. It's too dangerous. But on the other hand, the airport in New London is a military airport, and I'm not allowed to land there. And [? Opie ?] said to him, well, do it anyway. And you could already see a surgeon there with a red face cursing us and giving a sign we are not supposed to land. And the poor pilot was unhappy. And [? Opie ?] s said to him, let me handle this.

And so we landed. [? Opie ?] got out. And here is this man cursing us. And he said, I am Dr. Oppenheimer. And then this surgeon said, are you the Oppenheimer? And he said, I am a Oppenheimer. And we are coming from a nuclear conference. So he was the Oppenheimer.

So right away, red carpet was put on the floor. We went right into breakfast of the [INAUDIBLE] place. And we were honored, and shipped in a bus directly to Cambridge. So you see, at that time, nuclear physicists had a certain pull. Good.

Now, the Shelter Island Conference, of course, had an enormous effect, and especially on a part of my physics activities, namely together with [INAUDIBLE] French, we tried to calculate the Lamb shift. We even started before the experiment was done. But we didn't work very hard. That's typical for a theorist if there is no experiment. Well, the theorist of these times. And with no experiments [INAUDIBLE] we didn't work very hard.

But when the experiment was out, Bruce and I worked day at night. I should actually mention that Hans [? Beatty ?] produced in his usual quick intelligence at Shelter Island a semi-quantitative theory of the effect, Only the constants were not quite determined yet. And we calculated the whole thing and got the right result.

And then came the dark days of my life, namely that we were really the first ones who had made that calculation, but we showed it to Schwinger and Feynman. And Schwinger and Feynman recalculated it, and got a different result. But both Schwinger and Feynman got the same result. Under these conditions, of course, you have a difficult time.

Now, instead of sticking to our calculations, we should have done, we recalculated, recalculated until half a year later, I got a telephone call from Feynman, you are right and we are wrong. And then we were not the first. It was Lamb and [? Krall ?] who did a similar calculation. Well, you better have self-confidence.

Now, so my interest at that time and interest of the theoretical group were very much divided between fundamental electrodynamics-- field theory, in other words-- and nuclear physics.

And of course, after our calculation, which was a very complicated one, I got the idea actually from [INAUDIBLE] that what you should do, calculate the self energy of the free electron [INAUDIBLE] since I have calculated self energies for a long time before. And I should calculated the self energy of the bound electron in hydrogen, and then subtract. But subtracting two infinities is a difficult job. And we did it in a sort of clumsy, but correct way.

Then came-- all this was, of course, cleared up and made very elegant by Schwinger, Feynman, Tomonaga, Dyson, and so on. So our calculation has only historical interest.

But nuclear physics. It was in some ways a continuation of the work I did in Los Alamos. But I had several great advantages. First is, and I would like to mention it again, the wonderful support from LNS that I don't need to worry about money and support and paying assistants and post-graduate.

And the greatest advantage of all was to have met Herman Feshbach here. And then it began right from the beginning an extremely fruitful collaboration of two people, who, I think at least personally, are not so different. But in their approach to physics, we were just different, and just complementary, a wonderful complementary. I am more intuitive or, shall we say, more sloppy, hand-waving in my way of doing physics. He is more mathematical, formalistic, but still appreciates, also, the general aspect.

And so we had a wonderful team together. Different approaches, but not different characters. It was a wonderful mutual understanding not only for physics, but of all problems we meet, political. There's a deep friendship that lasted. It still becomes stronger every year, in physics, in scientific politics, in real politics, and with our families.

So well, it is not time enough to mention what we did together, but a clouded crystal ball model was one of the important things, which explained measurements by [INAUDIBLE]. We're very proud that our theories did exactly the curve-- almost exactly the curves that were measured.

But let me say, one of the more important things of that time was that the book, the book, but it's the Blatt and Weisskopf book. I decided roughly in the late '40s that such a book should be written. There was only one book available, the so-called bible of Hans [? Beatty ?] and [INAUDIBLE] and others that was published before the war. So there was really a need for a theoretical nuclear physics book.

And I had, again, the luck of finding a post-doc, John Blatt, who came-- he made his PhD at Cornell, who came, and I asked him to work with me. And that was, again, a wonderful combination.

Now, I would like to make sure that it is not like the famous combination of Landau and Lifshitz, where people said that there is no word written by Landau and no idea conceived by Lifshitz. But that wasn't that way. There were lots of words written by Blatt. And he contribute a lot of ideas. But he was a much more accurate man. He is a very good mathematician. He didn't allow hand-waving arguments and things of this kind.

And also, he made me work. I remember, once I came in the morning and said to him, yesterday I saw a very interesting movie. He said, you were at a movie? You should have written chapter 13. And so he really kept me working extremely hard.

And then there was an interesting conflict with [INAUDIBLE], the publisher. Because I in him the manuscript. Yeah, I always stick to the alphabetical order, Blatt and Weisskopf. And the reason is because my first paper, which had some influence on physics, was one with Wigner. And I had the luck to find a famous collaborator who was in the alphabet after me. So it was Weisskopf and Wigner. And then I made a vow that from now on, since my name was the first one in that paper of the natural line width, which most of you know, that I made a vow I I will always publish in alphabetical order.

So I went to [INAUDIBLE] and said, this is Blatt and Weisskopf. And [INAUDIBLE] said that we cannot do this. You are known. You are the senior officer. It must be Weisskopf and Blatt.

Then I fought with him. I said I made a vow. He said that it's none of our concern. We are concerned about selling the book.

And then finally I convinced him with the following argument. When it is Weisskopf and Blatt, the emphasis is on Blatt. When it is Blatt and Weisskopf, the emphasis is on Weisskopf.


And he bought that. He bought that. And finally, it was Blatt and Weisskopf.

Well, I have made the experience in writing this book an experience that I had later on also. It is really wonderful to write a book. Well, it's not wonderful to write a book. It's a terrible work. It always takes 10 times more time than you think.

But it is wonderful in the following way, that you really have to think about everything. And therefore, you find, in writing a book, themes for original work. That has to be worked out. This has to be worked out.

And so it was also with that that a lot of original papers came from writing this book-- among others, the calculation of gamma ray radiation, which is I think the only place where my name enters into the language of physics with the so-called Weisskopf units; and other things, the collaboration with Walecka, who is, I hope, here, and Gomes about nuclear matter.

And quite a lot of things came out of writing that book. And at the end, of course, in some ways also, the clouded crystal ball work with Herman Feshbach, and the compound nucleus work with Francis Friedman, the compound nucleus and direct reactions, things that later on were really developed into a systematic theory of nuclear reactions by Herman Feshbach.

Well, theory wasn't completely neglected. I tried to calculate with [INAUDIBLE] the magnetic moment of nucleons that was pre-quark time. And nowadays, it turns out that with quarks, you can also not explain it so easily. But we did it differently, which it's probably not very important paper.

And then the independent-particle model, at that time, of course it was a time when the shell model of the nucleus was produced by Jensen and Mayer. And everybody was astonished how [INAUDIBLE] nucleons run almost like independent particles in the nucleus although the interaction is so strong. And well, we tried to think about this and wrote a few papers about how this really comes about. Out of this came also the collaboration with [INAUDIBLE] and Walecka and Gomes.

And then the bag model, the bag model, the famous MIT bag model, was of course one of the triumphs of this place of the theoretical division. And well, I didn't contribute much. I encouraged people like Johnson, like Ken Johnson and Bob Jaffe and others to go ahead. I found it extremely interesting. I completed a few hand-waving, as usual, hand-waving arguments. But well, they put my name on the paper. I'm very glad they did it, but I'm not sure I deserve it.

By the way, I would like to show this picture, which shows sort of the MIT collaboration in theoretical physics. You see here-- well, this is John Blatt. That is Bruce French. That's Herman, and that's me when I was still young and black. So this sort of symbolizes the way we worked and had a wonderful time together.

Well, now let me say a few words about other activities which are more of social, educational significance. I tried to introduce a few things that were fun but didn't really develop too much. First, in the '50s, I had the graduate student dinner.

We went out once a month, I think-- was it a week? No, once a month, I think, or more frequent-- to have dinner together downtown with the graduate students, with some of the graduate students in theory.

And they were really very helpful. It was wonderful. We discussed, of course, mainly physics, but not only physics, also politics and general questions, personal questions. You know, it's very interesting. The relation with the gradate students has sort of changed, but that is not only due to the changes in our society, but also due to age. The difference in age becomes bigger between gradate students and me.

For example, in Rochester, I was almost the same age as the graduate students at the beginning here. Therefore they came to me also with problems, should I marry this girl or not, in which case I always say, if you ask, the answer is no. But of course, now this is no longer that way. First of all, well, I don't want to go into the social, and some aspects of our society, but the whole-- this problem has changed, too, not only physics.

Then I tried to do something which I found very useful, but then it was too hard on me-- namely, the colloquium question. It turned out that the graduate students did not come. Only a few came to the colloquium.

And then I said that's very bad because it's sort of instructive. But I know the reason, because the speakers are usually not very good in the colloquium. And then I tried to do the following. I said the so-called pre-colloquium. On Thursday at 2 o'clock, I invited the graduate students to come, and I will tell them what I think the speaker is going to say.

Now, that's sometimes very difficult. First of all, I only know the title. Sometimes, of course, I know more about it. But sometimes, I have to guess and I told them things that may be very interesting for the graduate students but had nothing to do with the colloquium. And sometimes, it was useful.

And indeed, I think it has helped that-- it helped me enormously because I had to think about what the title may mean. And since I am always against specialization, I think one ought to have at least a scientific American idea of all physics, not only one specialty. In other words, I prefer to know-- instead of knowing everything about nothing, I prefer to know nothing about everything. And this was always my fun in life.

And then I had also a seminar, how to give a lecture. And there were not more than 12 people, and they had to choose a subject, and preferably not their own thesis subject but another subject. And then they had to give a talk for one hour.

And the second hour of the seminar, we criticized him. You didn't explain this. You didn't explain that. You assumed that everybody knows the foundations, which is always a mistake, not only of young speakers but also of older physicists.

And so that was fun, but it also somehow lasted a few years, and it didn't-- not longer. Well, then of course a very important event in my life was-- I have still a few minutes-- was 1960 when the director of CERN, Bakker, died in an airplane accident. And the moment I heard this, I thought that means something in my life because I was always following very closely what happens in Europe, European physics.

And I tried also to help with advice and spend my sabbaticals over there since somehow, I find physics must be international. And that's one reason. And European physics, after all, has really created physics. And somehow, the ravages of war were terrible, and we have to help them.

And I also felt a feeling of, how shall I say, of I owe Europe so much, the whole culture, my education. In spite of the terrible things that happened there, it is in Europe where many of my cultural roots lie. And I felt I would like to pay back some of this debt.

And when I then was asked to become director-general, I accepted mainly because of that reason, but also because I never had an administrative job except that I was mayor of Los Alamos, which is sort of a ridiculous job. But I was elected, elected, mayor of Los Alamos for two years, which is great fun, but that doesn't come here. You can read it in my autobiography.

And another reason, which I never admitted, of course, was that I loved skiing. And of course, Geneva is a wonderful center for skiing over the weekends. But I never admitted that reason, and God punished me for this because I had a bad automobile accident just when I started becoming director so that I had two years, no skiing.

Well, but anyway, it was for me a tremendous experience, not only from the political point of view that it's the first international institution that is not only paper shuffling like the many UN organizations, but where real work gets done on an international basis where the European nations work together, and also a lot of Americans. And that was really, for me, an enormous experience, almost or perhaps even more important than the Los Alamos experience, of creating an international spirit. And it was the first year where the machines were working, where research has to be organized. It was just a great thing.

And I must say, I enjoyed every minute of my directorship, though I had many difficult problems. But actually, the collaboration was no problem.

Once, a journalist came to me and asked me, is it not very hard to have Britishes and French and Germans and Italians working together? I said, that is not hard at all. What is hard is to have two Italians work together. And that was just after having discussion with [INAUDIBLE].

Well, when I came back, I didn't want to spend my life at CERN. Maybe I should have stayed a little longer because tradition of five years has been kept and I think it's a little too short for a director-general. But I came back after all, my children and friends and so on, and I don't want to live all the time over there.

I came back as sort of a different person, in a way, because I had this administrative experience. So they asked me after a year to become the head of department, of physics department, which I accepted. But you see, I was a little different from the other heads because I have-- at CERN, there was so many very good people with experience who took over the job of the financing and the, you know-- in other words, I could delegate authority and really think about the important things.

And I tried to do this also in the department, where it's much more difficult because the department is much more varied than a laboratory like CERN. But again, I ascribe it in some ways to my laziness. I don't want to go into details of the finances. I leave this to others. And I had good helpers. Pete Gold, so many of you remember, [INAUDIBLE], and then Tony French, who were my right-hands. And so I really could do it.

And at that time, things were not so bad as they are now. I mean, it was much easier to get money. Indeed at that time, basic science was very well supported by Washington. And that's why it was possible to hire very good people, especially in theory. We had [INAUDIBLE], who is here, fortunately, as our guest, and then [INAUDIBLE] and Steve Weinberg. And so we had really a wonderful addition, and it was a pleasure, in a way, to be head of department, although it does cut-- as all my colleagues who were head of department can admit, it cuts into your physics time, maybe not with Herman Feshbach because Herman Feshbach works 48 hours a day, and then he has time for physics.

Well, I'm now coming to the time where I was getting old. I got "retired," under quotation marks, in '74. And since then, my activities sort of decreased. But still, it is-- well, I was able to write books, my autobiography and other books and a book with Kurt Gottfried under concepts of particle physics, which was not the most stolen book of the library as Blatt and Weisskopf was. And I'm not sure whether it still is, but I don't think so.

But then, you know, when you get old, it is a little harder to do physics and to understand physics, what's going on. But I would call myself not to be a passive physicist. I like to hear. And there are wonderful friends who always have the patience to come to my office to explain in detail and who don't mind my stupid questions. Maybe sometimes they enjoy it, even.

I've had a number of people, like Bob Jaffe and Johnson and [INAUDIBLE] and many others, who tell me what's going on, and the experimenters-- I mean Henry Kendall and Francis Friedman-- and tell me what's going on. And I enjoy this.

And then also in other fields, in solid state, like Kastner and [? Berger ?] now-- and he [INAUDIBLE]. And so it was a pleasure to listen to physics. And it's still my pleasure to listen to physics because physics is still terribly exciting.

But of course, when you're getting old, you also want to do some things which you always postponed-- interested in other things, do more music, do more reading, do more travel. But still, I find I am still trying to be a member of this community. And every time I come-- and I come less frequent than before-- I feel these are friends and here's my home.

And of course, I made two physical observations, experimental observations. One is that time runs now faster than before. Now, whether that's physics or not, I don't know. And also, gravity becomes stronger, because it's much harder for me to go up the stairs than before. Well, thank you very much.