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"

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Ngoi Kuan Hoon said...
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