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Heitler: quantum theory of radiation


Being supervised by Nicholas Kemmer
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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So I decided to go to physics and at Trinity I would start a fresh life. So I arrived in Trinity and the person I met there - I've always been lucky in people I come across - the person I met there was Nicholas Kemmer, who was just the ideal person to learn physics from at that time. He was originally from Russia, an emigrant who had spent some years in Switzerland and then come to England just before the war. Then he'd spent the war years - at least some of the war years - at Chalk River in Canada doing nuclear energy, and then he came back to Cambridge at the end of the war, and he was the most generous person. He was just always willing to take time to teach and to just talk to students and to encourage students. He had lots and lots of people he was supposed to be supervising, and supervising was a big part of his job in Cambridge, so he had these students one or two at time, all day long, and because everybody knew he was good, so the students came to him in great numbers and he never could say no to anybody. So he also used up a lot of his time on me and taught me a tremendous lot. It was extremely helpful to me, In a way, I mean, it was a tragedy that his research career was interrupted in just the worst way by World War II. Just before World War II he had done a brilliant piece of work, symmetrical meson theory, which was a really imaginative construction - and he postulated three kinds of mesons, positive, neutral and negative, with essentially the SU(3) [Editor's note: this should be SU(2)] symmetry and he had it all in a way. And it was completely untested by experiment at the time - in 1938 I think he published this - and it was a major contribution as a speculative idea of how the particles might interact. He had these three mesons interacting with protons and neutrons in a symmetrical fashion. Well, everything he said was right and it was all verified ten years later by Jack Steinberger amongst others and, and but it was too late for Kemmer. I mean Kemmer's reputation somehow never took off. He was forgotten by the time that his theories were confirmed, and in the meantime he had this rather miserable teaching job at Cambridge to which he was too conscientiously attached - and so he never got back into the mainstream of research.

Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), who was born in England, moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He published several books and, among other honours, was awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Trinity College, Russia, Switzerland, UK, Chalk River Laboratories, Canada, Cambridge University, WWII, Nicholas Kemmer, Jack Steinberger

Duration: 3 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008