14 March, 2010

13 March, 2010

When theorists are forced to do experiments

It is well known that Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford was a brilliant but very authoritarian type of scientist. He was a head of the Cavendish lab in Cambridge and many well known scientists passed through it, such as Piotr Kapitza (Nobel Prize`78), Patrick Blackett (Nobel Prize`48), and Robert Oppenheimer (later chief of the Manhattan Project).

These three were increasingly at odds, due to their different relationships with Rutherford. While Kapitza shamelessly flattered and courted his boss, who in return gave him favours and even friendship, Blackett, who admired Rutherford's creative running of the lab, never had time for such things.

Also, Blackett was tutoring Oppenheimer by teaching him the art of experiments, for which Oppenheimer had little aptitude, and Blackett knew well about that. The tension between the two became so strong that one day Oppenheimer left on Blackett's desk an apple poisoned with chemicals from the lab (!).

Hopefully, Blacket survived, and Oppenheimer didn't lose his job only because his parents persuaded the university to put him on probation, on the understanding that he will have regular sessions with a psychiatrist.

A few months later Oppenheimer completely switched to theoretical physics.

Graham Farmelo, "The strangest man"

Scientific glastnost

Interesting Nature Editorial about Russian science:

"A small, but telling example came to light last month when the popular online newspaper gazeta.ru published an interview with Yuri Osipov, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Pressed by the reporter about the very low citation rate for articles published in Russian-language science journals, Osipov dismissed the relevance of citation indices, questioned the need for Russian scientists to publish in foreign journals and said that any top-level specialist 'will also study Russian and read papers in Russian'."

Well, nothing to discuss here – I second every single word of the Editorial (not Osipov's :-).

Take care,