ONE day in 1924, Albert Einstein received a parcel from Professor Langevin of the University of Paris.

He wanted Einstein to vet the PhD thesis of Louis de Broglie, who had espoused a theory which was rather mind-boggling.

Langevin, being the supervisor, was not sure of the acceptability of de Broglie’s work.

The thesis examiner was not sure whether to pass the candidate either.

They wanted Einstein’s comment and assessment.

Einstein later gave his stamp of approval by saying de Broglie “had lifted a corner of the great veil”.

His PhD thesis later earned de Broglie a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Einstein knew a gem when he saw one.

Weiner Heisenberg would have failed his PhD viva if not for his famous and caring supervisor who protected him and put in a good word for him.

His PhD thesis was a theoretical investigation into fluid dynamics. There were no instruments involved.

His examiner happened to be an experimentalist and he grilled him on things like: “How does a battery work?” and “What is the resolving power of a microscope?”

These questions were not expected by Heisenberg and he could not give satisfactory answers.

According to David Lindley, in his book Uncertainty, he could not recall the text book formula, tried to work it out on the spot, and got it wrong.

In Lindley’s words, Heisenberg “got his doctorate, but with a grade barely above pass”.

Ironically, Heisenberg later became a world famous physicist, with a Nobel prize in Physics to boot.

His career in physics outshone that of his ex-examiner and ex-supervisor.

There are also stories of supervisors who are not caring and helpful at all.

In his book Massive: The Higgs Boson and the Great Hunt in Science, Ian Sample told the story of Dennis Sciama (later PhD supervisor to Stephen Hawking at Cambridge) who one day rushed to his PhD supervisor’s office and knocked on the door.

When he was called in, he said: “Professor Dirac, I’ve just thought of a way of relating the formation of stars to cosmological questions, shall I tell you about it?”

Dirac just coldly said “No”, leaving poor Sciama little choice other than to walk back out.

Despite being a difficult supervisor, many still want Dirac’s supervision because his laureate aura is too compelling.

It adds value to your PhD thesis. This is what matters most.

Koh Aik Khoon
Koh Aik Khoon

* Dr Koh Aik Khoon is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics Malaysia. After he began writing for a local daily since 1988, he 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’.

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