Victor F. Weisskopf Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Scientist's Odyssey: Conversation with Victor F.
Weisskopf, 1988 Sanford S. Elberg Lecturer; 4/7/88 by Harry Kreisler

Page 1 of 4


Professor Weisskopf, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

You were present at the birth of 20th-century physics. You studied under Schrödinger at Berlin in 1932, Bohr at Copenhagen in '33 and '35, and Pauli in Zurich, from '34 to '36. For an audience of non-scientists, can you convey a sense of the intellectual ferment of that time?

Certainly I would try. It was one of the most exciting times in the history of physics, I would almost say. Of course I came a little late; the great event was in the middle twenties when quantum mechanics was formulated and invented and discovered. That happened in different centers, in Copenhagen and in other centers in Germany and England, and I came into physics in '28 as a graduate student in Göttingen. So at that time, quantum mechanics was already here, although a lot of necessary applications and extensions were not yet done. I felt a little like Alexander who said to his father, King Philip, "You have already conquered the world, what's there for me?" But there was a lot. It was a different time and there were many fewer physicists than now, especially fewer physicists who were working on that frontier of atomic physics, which was at that time the structure of the atom and the properties of the atom. And it was, in a way, a closed society. There were perhaps between fifty and a hundred people whom we know all personally. There was a yearly conference in Copenhagen and they all came and this was the great event. So it was a much more closed society. And of course, at that time, technical applications were still in the future, so even the interest of the public or of the technology of industry in what we did wasn't very great. Nevertheless, it was for us a tremendous time of new revelations.

And the situations was such that someone could write a dissertation and it would open up a new field.

Yes. Well, maybe I was a little late for that, but certainly in the second half of the twenties, I said in some of my writings that every dissertation opened a field. I know Felix Bloch's dissertation opened the field of solid-state physics and so on, and Heitler and London opened the field of quantum chemistry. So it was really a great time and there were still great problems and I was lucky to be able to hit a problem of the relations between the atom and the light that it emits -- between radiation and the atom. And I was also lucky to have the help of one of the great physicists who's still living, Eugene Wigner. And I think I was the first of the young people who worked with him, the first of his graduate students.

And there was an enormous amount of internationalism at the universities that you attended.

Yes, in particular in Copenhagen. Anybody who came to Copenhagen was struck, pleasantly of course, by the international atmosphere there. There were of course a few Danes, but the majority were people from all over Europe and North America, and it was really a pleasure to be together with Russians, Germans, Italians, whatever, and they were all fighting and living for the same aim. And it was my first great, and perhaps decisive, experience in international science.

And who of these teachers most influenced you in your work?

I certainly would put Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli on top. Niels Bohr had a tremendous influence as he is a father figure, not only for me, but for many other people too. His whole philosophy and his way of life and his way of looking at problems influenced us all tremendously, and I was lucky to have a close personal friendship with Niels Bohr up to his death. And Pauli, the same. You know, I came to Pauli later. Pauli was also one of the Bohr disciples, in a way, but he was at that time a professor in Zurich. Perhaps one of the greatest events in my career as a young physicist was when I got a letter from Pauli asking me to come to Zurich to be his assistant, his collaborator. That was in the end of 1933; I started in 1934. That was certainly for me a decisive moment, to work with Pauli, to understand the way he works, and to be his amanuensis, his helper. That was a great experience. I was there three years, which is unusually long for an assistant. This relationship with Pauli remained until his death in 1958, and then I still was very busy with working up his intellectual estate and publishing his letters and so on.

How did the political turmoil of the time affect this period? We're talking about the inter-war years.

Of course these were about the worst years, I would say, for Middle Europe. Just the years we are talking about, Hitler came to power in 1933, at that time I was in Copenhagen, and I left Europe for the United States in 1937, these were the years of Hitler's ascent, and of course these were very tragic times for many of my relatives and people I knew well, and also for many of my colleagues. In some ways, I led a charmed life. I don't know how it came about but somehow I never really suffered personally from any persecution. Of course I had difficulties finding jobs -- I had come from a German-speaking country, from Austria. The job possibilities in Germany and in Austria were very limited, even impossible at that time for a person of Jewish extraction. But I was lucky enough to have been able, through a Rockefeller stipend by the way, through American money, to be able to spend some time with Niels Bohr, and then of course, the position with Pauli. So I was lucky to be always outside the real turmoil; but we have seen enough of terrible things.

And Professor Bohr assisted you in finally locating to the United States?

Yes, Bohr played an incredible role there. During the later '30s, Copenhagen was sort of the haven for many persecuted German scientists of Jewish extraction. In a way it was wonderful. A wonderful company of James Frank and Otto Frisch and George Hevesy, all very famous people who had to leave their German positions, assembled there in Copenhagen. And Bohr was very active in getting money from English, American, and Danish sources, to keep us there. I had, at that time, a stipend which was paid by the Carlsberg Beer Factory. I always drink Carlsberg Beer in gratitude for that. It was really admirable to see how Niels Bohr not only was able to follow all the great advances at that time in nuclear physics and atomic physics, but at the same time traveled around to England, to America, and to other places to get jobs for his refugees -- and very successfully so. For example, the job that I finally got, for the small instructorship at the University of Rochester, I thank him. He went there and he commended me for that job.

And at this time you weighed another offer from the Soviet Union?

Yes, I had been several times in Russia at that time so I knew the Russian physicists. It was, actually, interesting when I got this Rockefeller Fellowship to go to Copenhagen, the trouble with the fellowship was that I had to wait for about a little more than half a year, maybe eight months, to get the fellowship paid out. And for that time, I decided to go to Soviet Russia. I was certainly not an enthusiastic communist but I was interested because some of my friends said it's wonderful and some of my friends said it was terrible. So I wanted to see with my own eyes and I did have friends in Soviet Russia, indeed people who came from Vienna, whom I could ask, "Could I somehow spend time there, for room and board? I don't need any pay," and indeed I was there for eight months, in Karkov, that is, in the Ukraine near Kiev. I had a very interesting time, not only because the people there were very interesting physicists (one of them was Lev Landau, the very famous Nobel Prize Russian theoretical physicist). At the same time, I could see what was going on. I traveled in Russia. I certainly saw the bad side of Stalinism. At that time, it certainly wasn't yet so bad as it was later, but it was already visible that things were going the wrong direction. So I had a lot of friends there and therefore, in 1936 when I was sort of looking for a job, I got an offer for a full professorship with very good pay to Kiev. At the same time, when I got this offer of an instructorship with, I must say, a rather low pay (it was $200 a month, which is more than $200 is now but it was still not very much) and it was quite clear to me -- actually I visited Russia later on for a shorter time in 1933 and then in 1936 -- it was quite clear to me that I would not go to Kiev under any condition. I think if I would have accepted it, I'm not sure I would be alive today. And so I decided to go to the States.

Were you a very political person during this period?

Well, I don't know what you mean by this. I mean, any thinking person at that time had to be interested, with Nazism in Germany and with the whole turmoil, the threat of a World War, and going from one place to the other, you know Switzerland, England, Denmark, you are sort of bound to be interested in politics. So in some ways, I would say yes I was, but perhaps not more than many others. In particular, I was interested in socialism and communism: is this a solution or not? And I'm actually very glad that I visited Russia for such a long time because I really saw it from within.

Next page: What Makes a Scientist?

© Copyright 1996, Regents of the University of California