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Controversy over whether electrons are waves or particles


My thesis on electron diffraction in crystals
Hans Bethe Scientist
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Sommerfeld assigned me then a thesis problem. He had liked my little paper, and so he told me 'Now you make a complete theory of electron diffraction in crystals.' And so I did and Sommerfeld still gave me advice, 'There is the theory of X-ray diffraction by Paul Ewald, you might use as a... as a basis.' And I did, and fortunately for me electron diffraction is much simpler because in X-rays you have to deal with a vector, the electromagnetic field; whereas in... in electrons you have a scalar which makes everything much easier. And without much difficulty I could produce a theory of... of electron diffraction. It wasn't a very great work, in fact Wolfgang Pauli who was always very critical told me when I first saw him, 'I have been very disappointed by your thesis. I had expected much better of you.' But von Laue who had done the first theory of X-ray diffraction back in 1913 liked my paper very well and used it in some of his later publications.

The late German-American physicist Hans Bethe once described himself as the H-bomb's midwife. He left Nazi Germany in 1933, after which he helped develop the first atomic bomb, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 for his contribution to the theory of nuclear reactions, advocated tighter controls over nuclear weapons and campaigned vigorously for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

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: Arnold Sommerfeld, Paul Ewald, Wolfgang Pauli, Max von Laue

Duration: 1 minute, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008