MOST people attend department seminars to show face.During and after the talk, they just sit pretty and don’t ask questions.
For Brian Josephson (co-winner of 1973 Nobel Prize in Physics), he did not just sit idly at the Cambridge seminars. He was constantly on the lookout for any mistakes made by speakers and never hesitated to pounce on them.
When speakers heard that Josephson would be attending their seminars, they took extra care to do their homework and background reading. They tried to avoid being mauled by Josephson at all costs.
Richard Feynman also had the temperament of Brian Josephson. Pointing out mistakes was also his predilection.
Alan Lightman in his book The Discoveries has an interesting story to share. He was a physics graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
One day, he was excited to learn that Werner Heisenberg (1932 Nobel laureate in Physics) was coming to Caltech to give a seminar.
As a living legend, he certainly was a crowd puller. The auditorium was packed. Several hundred faculty and students, fidgeting in their chairs, were waiting to listen to Heisenberg.
After the formal introduction, Heisenberg shuffled to the rostrum. Lightman was surprised to see that the living legend had aged so much. He had been described as “a simple farm boy with clear bright eyes and a radiant expression” in his young and salad days. Now he looked old, wrinkled and weary.
After the seminar, there was a reception at the elegant Caltech faculty club. The supposedly cordial atmosphere suddenly turned hostile.
Richard Feynman, according to the author “stood up and verbally attacked Heisenberg for the foolishness of his lecture, indeed mocked him to his face”.
Underneath Feynman’s scathing remarks, Lightman detected not only a disagreement with Heisenberg’s new scientific work, but also contempt for the man, a deep resentment that the founder of quantum mechanics had tried to help the Nazis to build an atomic bomb.
Lightman was stunned by the drama.
Feynman himself had had a similar experience way back in 1948 when he was giving a seminar chaired by Robert Oppenheimer.
In the audience were the high priests of physics, which included Hans Bethe, Neils Bohr, Paul Dirac, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and Isado Rabi.
Denis Brian in his book The Voice of Genius has the details of the story: “Feynman was expressing his latest ideas with chalk-board equation, he was interrupted (of all people) by Paul Dirac asking if it was ‘unitary’. Not knowing the meaning of the word, Feynman craftily suggested Dirac hear him out and then tell him if it were unitary (he put the ball in Dirac’s court).
“Moments later, Teller complained that Feynman had forgotten Paul’s exclusionary theory. Feynman worked his way out of that only to be told by Bohr in a devastating putdown that he had forgotten the most important lesson learned from decades of quantum mechanics.
“Bohr finally took pity on Feynman and took the chalk from him, and then put him back on track.”
*Dr Koh Aik Khoon is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics Malaysia. After he began writing for a local daily in 1988, he has never looked back. His topics are mainly on Science and Higher Education. He has humanised top scientists like Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Paul Dirac, Stephen Hawking, among others, in his pieces. Some of his articles have been compiled into a book entitled ‘Musing from the Ivory Tower’.