Oral History Transcript — Dr. Willis Lamb
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Interview with Dr. Willis Lamb
Willis Lamb; September 30, 1994
ABSTRACT: Recollections of carrying the news of fission from Princeton to Columbia (especially to Enrico Fermi) on January 20, 1939. Remarks on being hired by I. I. Rabi and working with John Wheeler.
When I was a graduate student at Berkeley in the mid-1930s, I went in the summers to Stanford -- because Bloch was there as well as notable visitors. In the summer of 1938, after completing my Ph.D., I met Rabi at Stanford. I must have made a good impression because he arranged for an instructorship for me at Columbia that fall. Rabi didn't drive and I did, and I owned a car, so I agreed to drive him across the country in September. On the way, we stopped to visit George Stewart, an atomic-beam physicist in Iowa City. We also stopped to see Ed Condon in Pittsburgh. Rabi was going to spend the fall semester on leave at Princeton, so I dropped him there before I went on to New York.
Once I was established in New York, I started coming regularly to the Friday afternoon theoretical physics seminars in Princeton, which were run by Wigner or Wheeler. Wigner had just returned to Princeton as a mathematics professor after a two-year absence at Wisconsin. (In 1936, he had not been reappointed by the Princeton Physics Department.) These seminars were held in Fine Hall. If I stayed in Princeton for supper but not for other social activity, I took the 8:00 p.m. train back to New York. If I stayed for other social activity, I had to take a milk train that left Princeton at 2:00 am, arriving in New York at 4:00 am.
Because of these seminars, I saw a lot of Wheeler. It turned out that I had something useful to offer on a problem he was then working on, the influence of atomic electrons on pair production. I had an idea on applying the Williams-Weizsäcker method, and was also willing to carry out some numerical work that Wheeler suggested. (It turned out that I made a numerical error, and we had to publish a correction later.) I didn't make special trips to work with Wheeler. I just went down early enough on Fridays so that I could see him before the seminar, if he were free. Sometimes I saw Wigner instead of Wheeler on a Friday afternoon.
On Friday, January 20, 1939, when I got to an after-dinner social event in Princeton, I found that people were excited about the news of fission that Rosenfeld had reported at the Journal Club that Monday (January 16). I also heard that Bohr was annoyed (or at least distressed) that Rosenfeld had made this report. But then Bohr realized that he had never told Rosenfeld that it was to be kept confidential, so he got over it.
Rabi was at the Journal Club on January 16, so he learned about fission then. (The fall semester extended till late January, so Rabi was still in Princeton on his leave.) I don't know why Rabi didn't notify Fermi right away about this news. Fermi would certainly have been interested. Maybe Rabi tried to call Fermi or Dunning and didn't reach them, but that's only a guess. Maybe he didn't realize of what great interest it would be to Fermi. (Fermi had only been at Columbia about a month. He and Rabi had not yet overlapped there.) Anyway, as it turned out, I was the one to bring the news to Fermi.
On Saturday morning, January 21, after taking the milk train and getting very little sleep, I went over to Pupin Lab looking for Dunning and Fermi. I didn't find Dunning, but I did find Eugene Booth and Herb Anderson, so I told them about fission. Then I found Fermi and told him. This was the first he had heard of it and he showed great interest. (I believe that Booth and/or Anderson shortly brought the news to Dunning.) It took only a few days for people at Columbia to see the experimental evidence for fission themselves. Dunning had seen it by Wednesday, January 25.
Oddly enough, I never discussed this question with Rabi, because I didn't know there was anything to discuss. I had not seen Rabi when I was in Princeton on Friday, January 20 (he didn't attend the theoretical seminars), nor did I see him at Columbia the next day. In fact, I don't think I saw him in the next week. Yet it later got erroneously reported that Rabi had been the first to tell Fermi about fission. Apparently Rabi believed this himself, at least when he was much older, because Richard Rhodes told me that Rabi had told him that he had brought the news to Fermi. Rhodes said, however, that when pressed, Rabi had not been sure.
There was a Columbia University Presidential report in 1945 by Nicholas Murray Butler that correctly stated that I had been the first to talk to Fermi about fission. Fermi himself said in a speech that he had heard it first from me. In a contribution to a National Academy of Sciences report in more recent years, Herb Anderson described my bringing the news to him on that Saturday morning.
The story about Rabi being the courier may have originated in an article that John Wheeler wrote in Physics Today in the 1960s on the liquid droplet model, in which he says that Rabi carried the news to Columbia. (I only learned quite recently about this article by Wheeler.) The same thing was reported by John Holt, a colleague of Chadwick at Liverpool, in the Institute of Physics (London) Bulletin, now called Physics World.
I discussed this at some point in the 1980s with Richard Rhodes when he called me. In his book, he quotes Fermi's 1954 statement that he heard about fission first from me. Then he (Rhodes) adds his own supposition that Rabi and I may both have talked to Fermi the same day (Rhodes, p. 267). Rhodes also says (same page) that Rabi first heard about fission from Bohr. I think he heard about it first from Rosenfeld at the Journal Club. I do not think that Rabi was at the boat. Some accounts have it that Bohr told Wheeler at the boat, but I think that Bohr was keeping a secret since he felt an obligation to respect Frisch's material. I am sure that Bohr did not tell Fermi or Pegram at the boat.
Wheeler and Rosenfeld went together to Princeton that afternoon, and I do not think that Rosenfeld told Wheeler about the fission news. That came out on the Monday evening Journal Club. Bohr stayed in New York City for at least another day. Of course, if Bohr was really keeping a secret, he should not have talked for the five days of the ocean crossing with Rosenfeld about the fission problem, but that he could not have resisted.
[Note added by Kenneth Ford re: the final paragraph above. My best information is that Enrico and Laura Fermi and John Wheeler, but not Pegram, met Bohr and Rosenfeld (plus Bohr's son Erik) at the boat. No one said anything about fission at boat side, but Rosenfeld told Wheeler about it on the train going back to Princeton. Since Wheeler ran the Journal Club at that time, he rearranged the schedule and asked Rosenfeld to speak.]