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

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What Makes a Scientist?

What is it at the root of scientific inquiry? What is the temperament that makes...

...that makes you a scientist?


Well, I think that in a way it's really simple. It's just being interested in what's around you; you want to know. And I had this from my high school days. I didn't have a very good high school teacher in physics or in natural science, but somehow at that time, I just wanted to know and I read books -- too many, you know -- popular books on science. I was especially interested in astronomy and my parents gave me a telescope. My father was a lawyer and he was not at all scientific, but maybe on the contrary, he was what one would call a "humanist," and the whole atmosphere in my home was a humanist atmosphere. It may be interesting for the Berkeley public that Hans Kelsen, who plays such a role here, he is a law professor, he was a friend of our house. So in a way, I wanted to be different from my family. I was interested in natural science, in astronomy. I looked at the stars, I read books about the stars, I read about atoms which, at that time of course, was a very important subject. So that was the way I came in. I just wanted to know what it was all about.

It is probably a misperception, but one perceives a scientist as cold, calculating, rational; but you don't agree with that formulation?

I don't at all. On the contrary, I always criticized the teaching establishment for emphasizing this coolness and aloofness. If you are a scientist, you must be objective -- facts, you know, you should not have your emotions play a role. I think that's all wrong. A scientific inquiry is a human activity. It's full of human drives -- whatever you want: ambition, joy, or tragedy, whatever you take -- and so in all my classes I always try to be different from other teachers. Of course, there are also teachers who think like me. But I try to bring out the emotional angle, the joy of insight, which I always try to emphasize, how wonderful it is when you suddenly, or not so suddenly, understand something and see, "Ah-ha! it's this way!" And that's an emotional experience which I think one has to transfer to the students.

You made a reference in your public lecture to "complimentarity of thinking," and I've heard you say elsewhere that it is something that you developed in your education as you studied quantum mechanics. Explain that.

I really got that from Niels Bohr. From my spiritual father. He always emphasized the complimentary angle, which means there are different ways of dealing with experience which are often seemingly contradictory. Now first of course this was in physics itself, in quantum mechanics. An electron is a wave and a particle -- seemingly contradictory, but it turns out they are just two different sides, different aspects, of the same reality. Then Bohr generalized this and it was very impressive for me, I mean I was always extremely caught by these ideas, this different way of looking at it, that seeming contradictions are essential elements of human experience. Take an example of a piece of music, I happen to be very much interested in music.

You're a pianist?

I'm a pianist and actually before I took up physics I was even thinking of going into music; but anyway take a sonata, Beethoven's sonata. I mean you can describe this as vibrations of the air, you can you describe this as nerve synapses in your brain, but these are complimentary aspects of the musical aspects. Beethoven's sonata is an expression of emotions of a certain state of mind which of course is the most important part. Or take another example of the beauty of a sunset: you can look at it from the point of view of scattering of light, you can look at the wonderful color combinations, the symbol of the end of a working day, etc. These are all valid -- I would almost say equally valid -- ways of looking at human experience. Although they seem contradictory, they are not contradictory; they are complementary and they add up. I think for me a sunset is more beautiful if I not only admire the color, but also think, "How did this color come about?"

How does one discipline this emotional element so that it doesn't take away from a true analysis?

Well, one has to be careful even in art lets say, or in music. One has to be careful not to be too taken away by emotions because after all, the study of composing or playing a piece of music is also irrational, where you need emotions but they shouldn't run away with you. In some ways it's in science too: without emotions you would not be able to do something great in science. I'm quite sure that for Einstein (especially because he speaks about it), the beauty of those ideas was very important to him, and that's an emotional reaction. So there is emotion even in science which people often suppress. The main point of complimentary ideas is that one way of looking at things, be it the scientific one, be it the religious one, be it the artistic one, is not enough, and deprives you of many ways of understanding your environment; but even more, it is very dangerous because if you only have one way of approach, it is open for abuse. We see it today in fundamentalism, creationism, and even worse in the East with Communism (although this is now less strong than it was), but the fundamentalism of Khomeini or Qaddafi shows that if you are in only one line -- that's dangerous. Even the scientific technological line, if it is pursued without respect of anything other, namely moral, political or human aspects, leads to abuse as we unfortunately know about nuclear war and other things.

Are you satisfied with the way our educational system brings science to young people?

No, definitely not; that area I have to criticize very much, not so much college education where of course everything can be done better, and I'm always satisfied if people think about better ways of teaching, but I think the college teaching is relatively good, except what I said before about emotion. But when you come to high school or elementary school, I think it's simply terrible the way science is taught in most high schools. There are always exceptions -- good exceptions, fortunately -- but if you look at the general way it is taught in high school it is simply just to scare the kids off the subject, because they don't get at the essential joy of insight or even the independent way of finding something. The teacher should lead the student so that he can find the answer himself, either by trying it out on the table or by thinking. These elements are neglected, and you can even start at the elementary school with a very simple thing -- how the water behaves in a glass -- all these things you can observe and if you lead the kids in thinking about it they will have tremendous pleasure and they will understand the real nature of science.

How would you go about doing what your saying? Should the teachers have different training than just science?

Yes definitely, the teachers should have different training and I think the teacher training schools are not doing the right job. By the way, that's not only true for science, it's also true for other subjects. My daughter happens to be in a teacher training school and is very interested in science in elementary schools. She said that most of the teacher training is just driving out the good spirits of those few students who had it from the beginning.

So that the materials may be intimidating the people who are trying to teach?

That's right, and it could be done a lot better, but of course the point is that teaching is considered a not very high-standing profession, you know: "who can does and who can't teaches," and this kind of attitude. The high school teachers are badly paid, the elementary teachers too, they are overloaded and they have no time to think and they have a much too narrow curriculum and all this. I think a lot could be done better. I see movements in this direction that people are beginning to think about it and they are working groups on this. My daughter, for example, is the principal investigator of an NSF project to teach science in the elementary schools, so people are beginning to see the problem.

And you have actually written a book for children, have you not?

Well, it's not for children but it is for young people, Knowledge and Wonder, which actually is now already in the second edition and has been translated into many languages.

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