Charles Irwin Weiner (1931–2012)


Charles Weiner, the director of the Center for the History of Physics from 1965 to 1974, passed away on January 28 of this year. He was 80.

Charlie, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, was one of the most prolific contributors to the Oral History Collection in the Niels Bohr Library. From 1962 through 1978, he contributed over 75 oral histories, with well over 125 individual interview sessions, with a wide range luminaries from the “Golden Age” of physics, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Otto Frisch, Nevill Mott, James Chadwick, John Cockcroft, John Wheeler, Walter Brattain, George Gamow, Melba Phillips, Eugene Wigner, Ed McMillan, Maurice Goldhaber, Hans Bethe, Felix Bloch, Luis Alvarez, and many others.

The transcript of one of Weiner’s most important interviews, five sessions with Richard Feynman, has recently been digitized and put online at the AIP history website (visit http://aip.org/history/ ohilist/ and search for Feynman). The sessions date from March 1966 through February 1973, and have been long-valued by Feynman researchers, as they are one of the rare interviews of this sort that the scientist gave. In one exchange from the Feynman interview (later made more famous by Feynman biographer James Gleick), Weiner and Feynman had an insightful sparring about the difference between the idea of notebooks as “records” of work or as “work” in and of itself (emphasis added):

Weiner: We’re starting again and the break was a very rewarding one because we dug up four notebooks. For a minute let me just describe them. These are loose-leaf notebooks with each page containing your work, everything that you asked yourself. It is almost in a first person diary form asking yourself questions and then setting out an agenda for work, indicating you spoke to so-and-so today and you got this idea and then you want to pose yourself a certain agenda and then tackling it. Each page is dated. Some pages have a later date on them because you have gone back to them and said, well, this problem didn’t work out or it was solved in terms of the work done on June 5, 1968 or incorporated into that. And so this represents the record of the day-to-day work.

Feynman: I actually did the work on the paper.

Weiner: That’s right. It wasn’t a record of what you had done but it is the work.

Feynman: It’s the doing it — it’s the scrap paper.

Weiner: Well, the work was done in your head but the record of it is still here.

Feynman: No, it’s not a record, not really, it’s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper. OK?

Weiner: OK.

One of Weiner’s most famous and lasting historical contributions was as the co-editor (with Alice Kimball Smith) of the letters and recollections of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father” of the atomic bomb. Published by Harvard University Press in 1980, the volume has been a definitive source for scholarly and popular insight into the evolving personality of the enigmatic Oppenheimer.

Smith and Weiner’s volume, though, also had an effect on the Oppenheimer family. In April 1980, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s son, Peter, wrote to Robert’s brother, Frank, using the recently-published volume as a pretext:

My Dear Uncle, The excuse for this letter – for writing it – might as well be the formal one. But really, my inspiration is quite different. Alice has sent me her volume. [The Smith-Weiner book.] Probably you have it too. The way I figure it, since my father went on so often @ such great length about missing you, I should be entitled to one such claim; to make it, & to agitate for a little time together, to say hello, is the purpose of this note.

The letter is kept in the Frank Oppenheimer papers in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. A copy is available on the web version of this newsletter (http://aip.org/history/ newsletter/).

Weiner did undergraduate work in metallurgy at the Case Institute of Technology, graduating in 1960, and received a Ph.D. in the history of science and technology from there in 1965.

After directing the Center for History of Physics, he took a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the director of the MIT Oral History Program. He was also involved with the Science, Technology, and Society Program at MIT, and remained active in the field of history of science until his death.

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