Thursday, May 03, 2012

Theory and experiment

From the autobiography Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist. See also Alvarez quotes, and related posts.
Chapter 4: I learned about the discovery of nuclear fission in the Berkeley campus barbershop one morning in late January 1939, while my hair was being cut. Buried on an inside page of the Chronicle was a story from Washington reporting Bohr's announcement that German chemists had split the uranium atom by bombarding it with neutrons. I stopped the barber in mid-snip and ran all the way to the Rad Lab to spread the word. The first person I saw was my graduate student Phil Abelson. I knew the news would shock him. "I have something terribly important to tell you," I said. "I think you should lie down on the table." Phil sensed my seriousness and complied. I told him what I had read. He was stunned; he realized immediately, as I had before, that he was within days of making the same discovery himself. 
... I tracked down Oppenheimer working with his entourage in his bullpen in LeConte Hall. He instantly pronounced the reaction impossible and proceeded to prove mathematically to everyone in the room that someone must have made a mistake. The next day Ken Green and I demonstrated the reaction. I invited Robert over to see [it] ... In less than 15 minutes he not only agreed that the reaction was authentic but also speculated that in the process extra neutrons would boil off that could be used to split more uranium atoms and thereby generate power or make bombs. It was amazing to see how rapidly his mind worked, and he came to the right conclusions. His response demonstrated the scientific ethic at its best. When we proved that his previous position was untenable, he accepted the evidence with good grace, and without looking back he immediately turned to examining where the new knowledge might lead.
This short passage illustrates many aspects of science: the role of luck, the convergence of different avenues of investigation, the overconfidence of theorists and the supremacy of experiments in discerning reality, the startling reach of a powerful mind.

1 comment:

Robert Sykes said...

So how long did Alvarez walk around with bad hair?

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