Straight from the physicist’s mouth: oral histories

Today was the last day of our beloved Crazy Laser Lady, aka LaserFest coordinator. Although she has moved on to pursue her career as a science journalist, she left us with a library of memorable quotes such as: “Is that a tarantula made of paramagnetic putty on your desk?”

One floor below the former desk of the Crazy Laser is the Center for the History of Physics in the Neils Bohr Library. This center contains the oral histories of 500 physicists. These oral histories are recorded interviews with George Gamow, John Archibald Wheeler, Werner Heisenberg and many more. The center is working to transcribe and digitize the recordings. It is interesting to hear many of the physicists recalling their childhood memories as well as their reasons for majoring in physics rather than engineering.

From Gamow’s popular book, Mr. Tompkins in Paperback

First let us listen to (or read) George Gamow and his wife sing about the battle between the expanding universe theory and the steady state theory at the time of the discovery of the big bang.

“‘Your years of toil,
Said Ryle to Hoyle,
Are wasted years, believe me.
The steady state
Is out of date.
Unless my eyes deceive me,
My telescope
Has dashed your hope;
Your tenets are refuted.
Let me be terse:
Our universe
Grows daily more diluted!

Said Hoyle, ‘You quote
Lemaitre, I note,
and Gamow. Well, forget them!
That errant gang
And their Big Bang
Why aid them and abet them?,’You see, my friend,
It has no end
And there was no beginning.
As Bondi, Gold,
And I will hold
Until our hair is thinning.’

‘Not so,’ cried Ryle
With rising bile
And straining at the tether.
‘Far galaxies
Are, as one sees
More tightly packed together!

You make me boil,’
Exploded Hoyle
His statement rearranging;
‘New matter’s born each night and morn.
The picture is unchanging!’

‘Come off it, Hoyle!
I aim to foil
You yet’. (The fun commences)

‘And in a while,’
continued Ryle,
I’ll bring you to your senses!’

Gamow (singing in a Russian accent):
It is same in many ways.
Univerrse has been expandink
Frrom the crradle of its days.
Univerrse has been expandink
Frrom the crradle of its days.

You have told it gains in motion.
I rregrret to disagrree,
And we differr
in ourr notion
As to how it came to be.

It was neutrron fluid – neverr
Prrimal atom as you told.
It is infinite as everr
It was infinite of old.
On a limitless pavilion
In collapse, gas met its fate.
Yearrs ago (some thousan million)
Having come to densest state.
All the Space was then rresplendent
In that crrucial point in time
Light to matterr was transcendent
Much as meterr is to rrhyme.
Forr each ton of rradiation
Then of maZrr was an ounce,
Till the impulse t’warrd inflation
In that ggreat prrimeval bounce.
Light by then was slowly palink
Hundrred million yearrs go by …
Matterr over light prrevailink,
Is in plentiful supply.
then began condensink
(Such are Jeans’ hypotheses)
Giant, gaseous clouds dispensink
Known as prrotogalaxies.
Prrotogalaxies were shatterred,
Flying outwards thrrough the night.
Starrs were forrmed frrom them, and scatterred,
And the Space was filled with light.
Gala- xies arre everr Spinnink
Starrs will burrn to final sparrk,
Till ourr univerrse is thinnink
And is lifeless, cold, and darrk.

In the spirit of great quotes, here are some other gems from the distinguished minds of physics:

John Archibald Wheeler, giant of the theoretical physics who coined the term “black hole”:

And I was then occupied in rewinding some of the motors that had worn out or had short circuits in them. So I found this a very interesting occupation, but it also gave me a chance to reflect a little bit more on the difference between engineering and physics. I remember saying this to myself when I came back.

It gave me a chance to reflect on the fact that an engineer builds a bridge or whatever it is that lasts 20 or 50 years, but if somebody discovers something in science, well, that’s a permanent acquisition of the human race. And somehow that made an appeal.

Charlie Townes, Inventor of the MASER, precursor to the LASER:

I remember very vividly, I was at my grandmother’s mountain house up in the mountains one summer, and I thought, well, let’s start studying the book and get ahead a little bit. I sat up in the woods overlooking a stream, and I remember very well the rock I was sitting on and the stream and the woods around, just exactly how it looked. I read for the first time about special relativity, and that was just a tremendous experience, to see what could be found out by reason, and a whole new view of what time and space were like.

Hans Bethe, Nobel Prize winner in 1967, helped build the atomic bomb:

My godfather, a very nice man, used to ask me questions about arithmetic. I must have been about four or five years old. I think one day he asked me (this, of course, I know from reports from my parents), “What is .5/2?” So I answered, “Oh, dear Uncle Ewald, that I don’t know myself.” Then it is reported that a few days later I had figured it out and ran across the street through the thick of traffic to tell him the answer. I was convinced he wanted to know.

Niels Bohr, pioneering researcher into the structure of the atom:

But in Cambridge I read, for instance, the whole Pickwick Papers, and I looked up every word. I thought that was a way to get into English.

Werner Heisenberg, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics:

I would say, I had never much fun in mathematics where you have to prove something. But I had much fun in mathematics where you have to find out how things are. I don’t know whether that says anything, but I think it’s that way. This proving of such and such I found to be almost like cheating. You start somewhere, and then you go into a dark tunnel and then you come out some other place. You find you have proved what you wanted to prove, but in the tunnel you don’t see anything.

Paul M. Dirac, a forefather of quantum electrodynamics who predicted the existence of antimatter:

A great deal of my work is just playing with equations and see in what they give. Second quantization I know came out from playing with equations. I don’t suppose that applies so much to other physicists; I think it’s a peculiarity of myself that I like to play about with equations, just looking for beautiful mathematical relations which maybe don’t have any physical meaning at all. Sometimes they do.

Freeman Dyson contributed to quantum electrodynamics without ever having earned a Ph.D.:

As individuals, of course, we have our criteria; I hate submarines, for example. I like to work on anti-submarine warfare, in the hopes that maybe one day we’ll get rid of submarines, whereas other people love submarines.

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