Oral History Transcript — Dr. Dennis Sciama
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Dennis Sciama; June 9, 1999
ABSTRACT: In this interview, Dennis Sciama discusses his life and career. Topics discussed include: Cambridge University; Fred Hoyle; Hermann Bondi; Thomas Gold; Ray Lyttleton; military service during World War II; Douglas R. Hartree; Abdus Salam; Ernest Rutherford; Arthur Stanley Eddington; Sir Martin Ryle; steady state universe; Paul Dirac; George Batchelor; Aaron Klug; S. Chandrasekhar; Henry Norris Russell; International Centre for Theoretical Physics; Eugene Paul Wigner; Murray Gell-Mann; John Wheeler; Pat Blackett; Werner Heisenberg; Bartel Leendert van der Waerden; C. P. Snow; G. H. Hardy.
De Greiff: Interview with Professor Dennis Sciama, Cesar [correct word?], June the 9th,
1999, Trieste. Can I start in asking you, what is the origin of the name Sciama?
Sciama: Well, the origin is my family came from Oletto [spelling?] to Manchester in the
last part of the last century. And they changed the spelling to the European form from the Middle
De Greiff:Right. And where were you born?
Sciama:I was born in Manchester.
De Greiff:In Manchester. Your early education was in England.
De Greiff:Manchester and then Cambridge or how was that?
Sciama:Well, I went to what the English call a public school, which means a private school,
and then I went to Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1944.
De Greiff:And it was to study physics or to do mathematics?
Sciama:Well, I wanted to do maths at that time, but the war was still on and I had got a grant
from the government. They'd invented a special kind of grant called a state nursery [correct
word?], because they wanted to train people in physics for the war effort.
Sciama:And they wanted me to do physics therefore. But they allowed me to do maths for one
year, and then I switched to physics, so I did do physics in my finals.
De Greiff:Which branch of physics? I mean you did your Ph.D. —
Part two [punctuation?] This is an undergraduate, so I took what they called part
two of the physics of the natural sciences [inaudible word] they called it.
Sciama:Where the topic, for part two you only do physics or chemistry or biology or
something. In the early parts you do several sciences, but I had done math you see from the
beginning. So when I switched to physics I did only physics. I don't know if you really want to
know all these details about —
De Greiff:No, no, just a couple of things about Cambridge, because I'm trying to —
Sciama:[inaudible phrases; both speaking at once] Yes, of course.
De Greiff:Yes, exactly.
Sciama:Well I can't remember now, if I ever knew, which [inaudible word) he took, that is
whether math or physics.
De Greiff:[inaudible phrase] first maths, probably maths or physics.
Sciama:Oh no [inaudible phrase]…
De Greiff:Who was your coach?
Sciama:Well, I had several coaches as an undergraduate, because the system in Cambridge is
you get supervisions.
Sciama:You get many people, so I got some mathematicians originally and then I got some
physicists, so there were quite a number of names.
De Greiff:Right. And this relationship in Cambridge between coach and students weren't
quite closed [correct words?; were quite close?], wasn't it?
Sciama:Yes, because in addition to going to lectures you had at least, I forget, once a week
probably, you had an hour with your supervisor alone. So in the case of maths you would do
problems and they would comment on them and in physics you might answer discussion
questions. Some of these teachers were very top researchers. [Unintelligible name; Kovich?] was
one of the — I was at Trinity. [Unintelligible name; Agnes?] was St. John's. I was next door to
Trinity. But one of his great mentors who [inaudible phrase] directed was Nick Taylor [correct
name?] [inaudible phrase]. He was at Trinity. But he didn't teach me as an undergraduate. But
Bessie Kelreach [spelling?] was a top world level pure mathematician but he still taught
undergraduates and I was one of those. Later I got quite friendly with him, because later I got a
research fellowship at Trinity so I became more nearly — not his equal literally, I was very young,
but you know I would be like of the same status in a certain sense. And then amongst the
physicists there was a well-known particle physicist called Sandy Devins [spelling?] who later
went to Columbia. And [inaudible phrase] there were several, but you probably don't want all the
De Greiff:Devins was doing experimental physics?
Sciama:Yes, that's correct, experimental nuclear physics, nuclear or particle physics. But at a
certain point he went to Columbia where I think he had quite a senior position in the physics
department in New York.
De Greiff:Perhaps one of the most important coaches was [inaudible phrase] Hoyle [correct
name?] you met [inaudible phrase].
Sciama:Well, yes. He was I think in fact technically a student of Fred's [inaudible phrase].
De Greiff:That's right.
Sciama:And I came later when I took up astrophysics. I interacted a lot with Fred, and even
more personally with his colleagues Bondy [spelling?] and Gold. So if anything I was much
closer to Fred than Abdus [spelling?] was because I became an astronomer you understand.
De Greiff:Yeah, yeah.
Sciama:But when I was an undergraduate I may have heard of Fred by name but I hadn't
come across him personally.
De Greiff:What was the reputation of Fred Hoyle? And I'll try to [inaudible phrase].
Sciama:He was at John's [correct word?] Abdus, and he was at that time a lecturer in
mathematics. I may have gone to a course he gave in fact on statistical mechanics. [Inaudible
phrase] right from his point of view a routine teaching course for undergraduates. But he was
beginning to make his name as a rather rebellious and an astrophysicist full of ideas and very
idiosyncratic if you like, you know. As we say in England, he was his own man. I mean he didn't
pay attention to what other people thought. But he became very friendly with Ray Littleton
[spelling?], who was his senior, and Herman Bondy and Tommy Gold were a little junior to him.
He brought Bondy and Gold into astronomy when they worked together on radar during the war.
And it was Littleton who brought Hoyle into astronomy, because Hoyle started in the mid-thirties
actually working with Hans Beta [spelling?] and Rudy Piles [spelling?], who were both visiting
Cambridge at the time. But he got friendly with Littleton because of their interest in cricket. It's
[inaudible word] a bit remote from Abdus but never mind, and just before the war Ray got him
working in astronomy, about 1938, whereas Fred's first papers around '36 were on subjects like
beta [correct word?] decay.
De Greiff:That's right.
Sciama:Oh, you know all these things already.
De Greiff:No, no, no. Just that one, no more [inaudible phrase].
Sciama:Yes. Through the fact that he was working as I say — and there's a paper Beta, Hoyle
and Piles in I think 1936. So people moved around, and I moved around, as I'll tell you in a
moment, when I did my Ph.D. from one subject to another. Of course people didn't always
plunge immediately into that, you know, that ultimate topic. So but as an undergraduate I didn't
— perhaps I knew the name Fred. I forget. He gave a famous set of radio broadcasts.
De Greiff:That's right. In 19-
Sciama:Was that '59?
De Greiff:[Inaudible phrase], yes.
Sciama:Well you see I stopped being an undergraduate in '47. I was an undergraduate '44-
'47, and then I was in the Army '47 to '49.
De Greiff:Oh, that explains. Yeah. Because you did your Ph.D., you finished in '52, is that
Sciama:That's right. There was still conscription though it was just after the war, so I did two
years in the Army, but I managed to do some defense research part of the time. Because Hartree
[spelling?], one of the professors at Cambridge whom I contacted before [inaudible word] helped
me to get a job — well, not a job but I mean I was still in the Army but I got a research position at
a place called TRE which had originally done radar research during the war and was now doing
things like developing infrared detectors for detecting enemy airplanes and so on. And I worked
on solid-state physics that was connected with infrared detectors. I wrote in tum a memoranda on
the basis of which Hartree took me back as a research student. And that was in 1949. And at my
suggestion I started work in statistical mechanics, but in the middle I switched to astronomy and
cosmology, somewhat influenced by the lively presence in Cambridge of people like Hoyle and
Bondy and Gold.
De Greiff:You mentioned that Hoyle had this reputation of being quite a rebel.
De Greiff:And I remember [inaudible phrase] I think it was a new scientist — I don't
remember well — referring Gold, Bondy and Hoyle [inaudible phrase] something like that. That
was more or less the —
Well there was the four of them who in different ways were all rather rebellious and
individualistic in astronomy and cosmology. As I say, the most senior was Ray Littleton, and he
got Fred Hoyle, as I've just said, into the subject just before the war. And during the war in fact
Bondy and Gold were first interned as refugees from Germany you see on the Isle of Mann or
somewhere, and then they were got out from there because it was clear they were not enemy
spies, they were not that type. They were Jewish and all that stuff. And they had shown sufficient
ability in physics that they put to a radio — not more than when I went to TRE, but to another
radar place, and that's where Fred was doing his radar work.
De Greiff:Some people who knew Art Salam [spelling?] and of course Hoyle [inaudible
phrase] sort of comparison to the two in the sense of both of them are very good producers of
ideas though not very able to discern between the good ones and the bad ones. I'm from John
Sciama:Ah. He was a colleague of mine when I later got a teaching position in Cambridge.
That's certainly true.
De Greiff:Do you think that there was a strong relationship between Hoyle and Salam?
Sciama:I don't know what their relationship was. I really don't know.
De Greiff:Or influence? Do you think that Hoyle was influenced [inaudible phrase]?
Sciama:No, because you see Salam, when he was doing his first research and I had just got to
know him personally, was on renormalization theory, which by then was very far from Hoyle's
interests which had switched from — Potentially he might have done that sort of thing. He had
started on beta decay theory in the mid-thirties.
De Greiff:Mm-hm [affirmative].
Sciama:But because he had moved into astronomy, which suited it very well, I don't think he
would have been that good at renormalization theory. So I guess their paths diverged. How
friendly they were, how well they go on together I don't know. They're rather different. I mean
although they were both very individualistic they were otherwise rather different. But of course
sometimes different people get on very well. You can't really predict. But I simply don't know,
as a fact.
De Greiff:In what sense do you say they are rather different? [Inaudible phrase]
Sciama:Well, ummm, well I think Hoyle was more iconoclastic than Salam.
De Greiff:Would you give an example of that?
Sciama:Well probably Hoyle had a larger fraction of crazy ideas than Salam did, if you like.
And towards later in life and to this day I'm afraid — and perhaps you shouldn't record — no, I
won't say this. I won't say this. It's on the record. It's not fair, because I'm very friendly with
Fred and I'm still his junior, so I won't say that. Anyway, Salam's ration of crazy ideas was not
all that large. He worked much more I would say the mainstream. Fred on the other hand did
create new lines of work himself, like the nuclear astrophysics line. I was thinking more of things
like Abdus built up ICTP you see, and although he wasn't organizing it with his own hands he
had a big team of organizers. He was prepared to talk to endless important people to set it up.
Although Fred set up an institute in Cambridge, he was the opposite of being a good organizer.
He was really — So they were a bit different in that way — although they both had institutions built
around them you see, but I think Fred was more erratic on the organizational side or just didn't
do a lot probably, but he saw that it was done by having good enough tenants [correct two
words?] who looked after that side of things. Well that doesn't make them all that different, but
at least they were a bit different.
De Greiff:But you didn't see Salam's work as particularly [inaudible word] as for example in
the case of Hoyle it was recognized?
Sciama:I'm not sure I quite understand your question. And I'm not a particle physicist,
although I've learned a bit of particle physics through my recent work. But I would say apart
from some work Abdus did about parity in molecules, you know, other than the fact that
everything is [inaudible word] related, but apart from that particular idea — which I don't think
was considered very successful. But most of his- I mean, I'm not saying — Lots of his proposals
for gauge theories and so on were a bit speculative, as many people did in the subject, but it was
all part of a stream that did that sort of thing. Fred was always sort of looking for uniquely
different ideas, much more I would say than Abdus. That's the kind of thing, some of which were
very successful in Fred's case, and some weren't.
Let me touch another point about Cambridge which I think it's important from
what happened afterwards here in relation to it being in some sense a [inaudible phrase]. This
tension between experimental [... glitch in tape at this point...] [inaudible word] in the what we
could call the whole Wie1 [spelling?] affair in the 1950s and 1960s. Do you think there was —? Is
this correct to perceive this as a tension between a traditional experiment in experiments and a
new tradition in theory in Cambridge?
Sciama:Oh, this is a very interesting, certainly complicated question. Incidentally, I'm not
sure if it was with both of them, but at least with Salam he was starting out as an experimental
physicist [inaudible phrase].
De Greiff:That's right, yeah.
You would more about that than I do. And then it was evident he was suited
[inaudible word]. I don't think in Fred's case that was the case, but that's not quite what you're
asking, I understand. There were two, there are at least two different traditions at Cambridge.
One is a very empirically based tradition of which Rutherford is probably the prime exponent.
Now you could say that Martin Wiel followed in his footsteps originally in this way. Very down
to earth, particularly Rutherford. And in fact he used to make rude remarks about theory. It's not
quite believing it, but you know he was at this [inaudible word] party joking he was even the
type. He was a bit what he thought and then he exaggerated to make a bit of fun. I think at the
[inaudible word; high?] table at Trinity — that was before I reached the high table at Trinity, but
years later because Rutherford died relatively young in 1938 before my time there. But he would
make quite rude remarks sometimes about mathematicians I gather, in their presence you know,
across the high table and that sort of thing. Anyway, there was this tradition of very strongly
empirically based research of which as I said Rutherford was I suppose the prime exponent, but it
was a whole English tradition according to many other names. But then there's another tradition
of whom perhaps Eddington [spelling?] before Hoyle was one of the prime exponents of being
very imaginative in fundamental physics. And again Eddington a bit, particularly towards the end
of his life, a bit crazy. But did very important — a bit like Hoyle, you see, did very central things
like on stellar structure and a little bit on general relativity in the earlier years, created more or
less something to study [correct word?] structure. But when he did his later fundamental theory
he lost his audience and he lost his way. And that's another kind of British physics you see, but
totally different from the very empirically based style. And both housed in Cambridge pretty
often, because for various historical reasons Cambridge was the focus of most of the great people
for many years in this general area. So it needn't necessarily follow the personal tension between
them, but there was if you like an intellectual difference call it — not necessarily tension. But they
might tease one another a bit when the occasion arose, but it might be friendly and just a
different style. In the case of Ryle [spelling?] and Hoyle there was personal animosity tied up
with this difference of approach in fact. But again, that was — I mean, talking about Cambridge as
a whole now, of course you're a historian and you want to go into all these things maybe. But I
was talking last night to some friends at dinner about the Hoyle versus Ryle thing, because I was
involved in it as a junior person. Because the big battle was about the steady state theory. And I
had nothing to do with this invention, but I rather support — I didn't rather, I did support it — and I
tried to protect it, tried to help defend it against these hostile discoveries you see and I wrote
papers at that time and had arguments with Ryle about the thing. Ryle won that battle in the end,
but at that time it was, for me it was a genuine scientific battle; there was nothing personal about
it. But between Hoyle and Ryle it's quite, well, notorious if you'd like that there was personal
animosity between them as well as scientific animosity. And Ryle was determined to disproved
the steady state theory. In fact the irony is, Ryle won the Nobel Prize building the radio telescope
that did the 3C [punctuation?] survey, because he wanted to count regular sources to disprove
Hoyle. But with the same telescope he discovered lots of sources that turned into quasars and so
on. And he made such wonderful discoveries that he got the Nobel Prize. But his aim wasn't to
make those discoveries, which of course he didn't know it lay in the future, but his main motive
was to have an instrument to extend the radio source counts to fainter sources to have a more
convincing set of data to disprove the steady state theory. That's how it was. But Salam was
being more interested in field theory, quantum field theory you see. I mean may have noticed
these things going on, and he had that link with Hoyle, but he was really in a different world you
might say. I mean he had links with Cameron [spelling?], to another person called Hamilton
[spelling?] who later went to Denmark, and they were doing quantum field theory, which was
then exploding in their faces you see. So they weren't probably terribly concerned with these
other things. I knew about them because I was working in this other area. But from Abdus' point
of view, it was probably a [inaudible word] sideshow I would guess.
De Greiff:Actually, as you said before, Salam started working on experimental physics.
De Greiff:And he suggested in an interview that when one had a first in physics he was
strongly, he was — he or she — was suggested to work in experimental physics at Cambridge. Is
Sciama:Probably. You see it has to do with the fact that in different universities the way
mathematical or theoretical physics is taught, organized and taught, in which sort of grouping
varies from physics in the States; it's rather different from in England. So many theoretical
physicists if they were undergraduates at Cambridge would come through the mathematics tripos
[correct word?]. Because even the final year — well, part two is the final undergraduate year. Half
of this is applied maths you see, well applied maths and theoretical physics and the other half is
pure. And people in those days took some pure courses and some applied. And then there was a
fourth year called part three which was very tough, where again you could do if you like all
theory. You could do field theory, general relativity and so on, and so on. So if you were going to
be a theoretical physicist and you were an undergraduate at Cambridge then you would probably
go through the math tripos, you see, whereas if you went to the physics tripos it would be more
likely that you'd be an experimental physicist. An exception is somebody I ought to mention,
because he's a link between me and Salam, is Dirac. Because I became, when I changed my
research subject as a Ph.D. student from statistical mechanics to relativity they gave me Dirac as
a supervisor. So for the last half of my Ph.D. time Dirac was my supervisor. I got to know him
rather well. [Inaudible phrase] anyone could know Dirac well. But he was at John's like Salam
and of course in the same subject as Salam, and then when ICTP was set up Dirac became a great
friend of ICTP. The Dirac steps [correct word?] there now. And tomorrow there is a Dirac lecture
and a lunch which I will be going to. So just by chance I had a link with that world through Dirac
being my supervisor. Dirac as it happened was an undergraduate at Bristol, so he was an
exception, but he'd be the type of person who would have done the math tripos rather than the
physics tripos, and [inaudible word] tripos - I think. Even ifhe'd mostly done, you know, on the
applied or theoretical physics side rather than the pure math side. Anyway, so that's the way it
was [inaudible phrase].
De Greiff:I assume you were then in the physics department under Dirac when doing your
Sciama:No, at that time — I should explain. Later it was set up — and this is a central feature of
Hoyle's book of memoirs, because he had a big battle with George Bachelor [spelling?]. I don't
know if you read about that.
Sciama:DNTP [spelling?] was set up years later, and when I became a lecturer in Cambridge
in maths later I was in DANTP [spelling?]. But when I was a research student there was no
department; it was just a math faculty. And that meant — that's a practical consequence, there
were no offices for research students to work in, you know, next door to one another in the
whole, along the corridor kind of thing. You worked in your college room. So when I did my
research I either worked in my digs, or I worked, if I was living in college I worked in my
college room. And I'd go to seminars in the arts [correct word?] school where they had the
physics, the theoretical physics seminars. Kamel [spelling?] I think ran a seminar. But otherwise
one would be more on one's own than later, you see, and if you wanted to see another student
and chat a bit you'd have to really seek them out. That's partly why the department was set up by
Bachelor. Well, there were other reasons, but it was partly for that reason. So no, so I wasn't part
of the physics department as a — Now wait a minute. Let me get this right. Oh no, no, no. I'm
getting confused actually. I'm talking about people in general, students in general. Because I
started doing statistical mechanics I was attached to the Monde [correct word?] Laboratory. And
my supervisor before Dirac was someone in the Cavendish. And so I did work in an office with
other people, other students — about six of us. In fact one of them has become quite famous now.
He's president of the Royal Society at the moment, Daron Glug [spelling?]. He's a Nobel Prize
winner and president of the Royal Society, and I got very friendly with him personally in fact —
not just a roommate. But we were, half a dozen of us were roommates, and Oliver Penrose
[spelling?] who became a good friend through whom I met Roger Penrose and became friends.
We were all — So it's quite true that I did my research by chance you see in the Monde
Laboratory, which is really part of the Cavendish. The Monde Laboratory was the low temperature
laboratory. Because I started in statistical mechanics you see.
De Greiff:That was just by chance.
Sciama:If I had started in relativity, yes, then I wouldn't have you see. Then I'd have worked
in college. Right? Where people who later became DANTP type students, right, would have all at
that time worked in their college pretty well, because there was no other department for them.
Unless they were attached to the Cavendish. Obviously then. If they were attached to maths, etc.
So things changed, you see, over the years.
De Greiff:Your Ph.D. was theoretical. There was no maths principal [correct word?], wasn't
Sciama:Well I don't know whether — I don't think my attachment to — I can't remember now.
When I changed my subject they hurriedly gave me a more appropriate supervisor. As far as I
remember I went on working in that same room. I wasn't sent to [inaudible word], "Ah, you no
longer belong to the Monde. You're a mathematician. Go to your room in college." I think I —
Because in any case, by the time I announced my change of subject officially only about another
year had passed before I got my Ph.D. Because I worked for about a year previously on the new
subject without telling the authorities. In fact the authorities were a bit annoyed, because my
previous supervisor was signing progress sheets about my excellent progress in statistical
mechanics. When I told the officials that I'd done my new subject and I was [inaudible phrase]
better do that [inaudible phrase], because they wouldn't give me a Ph.D. if I'd only been working
for one year on my new subject you see. So it was all a bit complicated. But that was unusual.
Most people of course, you know, stuck to one topic throughout their Ph.D. But I barely knew
Salam in those days. I don't want to give the wrong impression. I wasn't friendly with him like I
was with some of the colleagues in the office where I worked, but I would see him physically if I
went to seminars which were held in the arts school as it was called - which I might go to even if
they were not close to my subject. I would sort of see him there. So I mean I knew him, but not
in a friend — I mean I hardly knew him, you know.
De Greiff:Did you feel afterwards, when you became [inaudible phrase] in your professional
life did you feel, let's call it tension or dispute between theoreticians and [inaudible word]?
Sciama:Not really. Only through my partaking of the steady state battle — which had, as I say,
this personal element in it. But I've always in fact — well, I've gone on two types of theories.
Some of my work is fairly abstract, but others in astronomy is rather concrete and I care very
much about observational results. I've just sent a paper off half an hour ago to the astronomy
journal trying to stress that some theory I worked on fits recent observational data rather well.
And I care a lot about [inaudible word] forms of observation. So far from them being a tension,
for me it's absolutely crucial that the two sides should cooperate. But amongst individual
exponents in the two sides. There sometimes is a tendency even to sneer at the other lot — which I
think is silly, because we're both part of a collaborative enterprise. But you know people are like,
so they tend to do that. But it didn't —
De Greiff:You never felt you had to [inaudible phrase] your practice as a theoretician as
sometimes happens in —? For [inaudible word] that their [inaudible word] it's very interesting
how you have to justify that you are a theoretician, it's worthy [correct word?] doing it, so I do
Not really. Partly because there had been such a strong successful tradition in
England, you see, going back. Never mind Newton, but starting with Newton, Clarke Maxwell
[spelling?], J. I. Thompson. Although his most important work was experimental, but a lot of his
research was on theoretical problems, and then Dirac and Ari Chandler [spelling?] and so on.
There was nothing to apologize for. It was a famous tradition.
De Greiff:Tell me something about your first contact with Salam or the first time you heard
about Salam. How did that happen?
Well, I don't remember. I just guess when I went to these seminars there was this
rather distinctive person because of his — the color of his skin was unusual and of course in those
days it was more unusual than it would be today.
De Greiff:That's a very interesting point. So —
De Greiff:It's now in Cambridge and Oxford. And the other, they have mentioned sort of
Sciama:Well the case I know better in a way was Chandra Sikar [spelling?], who went to
Cambridge I suppose around 1933 I guess. And you know he had a famous fight with Eddington
which marked him for the rest of his life. And when Chandra came and visited me for six months
when I had moved to Oxford he spent a whole dessert after dinner one evening telling me how
bitterly he'd been damaged by Eddington — although he tried to sort of overlook it at times. And
he went to Chicago in 1938 and stayed there until he died, though he would have preferred to
remain in Cambridge because of the fight with Eddington over the white dwarfs [correct two
words?] and so on. And a bit component of that — I don't mean Eddington was exactly racist.
Eddington just didn't like — Chandra took a very correct view [correct two words?]. People like
Dirac and Piles and so on didn't know what all the fuss was about. Of course Chandra was right
you see, but Eddington was the great god, you know. That is an interesting story, but again it's
rather far away. But Eddington was the great god in astronomy, particularly in England, and
there weren't many people in the subject then you see, so one very powerful researcher could
dominate [inaudible word] you see, and he didn't like this whippersnapper who was again with a
funny color you see. And don't forget in those days India was a colony of England. Coming to
Cambridge and having this theory, which while mainstream and not itself peculiar although it
had this strange result about the maximum mass for a white dwarf, went against Sir Eddington's
rather peculiar ideas you see. And so I think Chandra suffered not just because he was young and
unknown compared with Eddington, but I think being an Indian must have had a lot to do with it.
And he hinted to me a bit that that was the case when I talked to him. Abdus' position was rather
different you see because Abdus was probably a research student when I first met him, whereas
Chandra had come with his first research done and was trying to make his career in Cambridge.
And then — and you know England at that time would be very patronizing, etc., etc., etc. to Indian
people. Okay? So — And Chandra was a proud and sensitive person, so he was very difficult for
me. And then he got, then he did this — then he got the Nobel Prize for it eventually, right, this
white dwarf-work. And he was told by the boss as it were, you see, that it was rubbish. And the
great American astronomer, Henry Norris Russell [spelling?], on one occasion wouldn't even let
Chandra speak at a big meeting of astronomers, because how could he get up and contradict
Eddington you see. But [inaudible word] was because of Eddington's authority. It wasn't
probably terribly racist at that point; it was more that Eddington's authority and the — But
nowadays you see there are certainly clever young people in the field. The idea of a more senior
person getting away with it, I mean if a senior person said some rubbish thirty clever young
people will get up and said, "Never have we heard such nonsense in our lives, you see. The idea
of a more senior person getting away with it, I mean if a senior person said some rubbish thirty clever young people will get up and said “not allowing the young person to speak because the authority mustn't be
challenged, I mean that whole atmosphere has changed you see — mainly because there are far
more people in the subject.
De Greiff:Let me change the word and say discrimination [inaudible word], but that there
was a sense that they were different.
Sciama:Not just different but inferior. Come on. There's no point.
De Greiff:I'm talking about Salam in the forties and early [correct word?] fifties.
Sciama:Oh, as well. That was already later from the point of view of the development of
feeling about these matters, and I guess we'd lost our — I can't remember the years now — we'd
lost the Indian empire, but I know all of Pakistan, same idea.
De Greiff:[Inaudible phrase]
Sciama:Yes. But in any case when you are a research student it's a bit different from when
you're beyond that stage and you are producing a theory that your local boss doesn't like, you
see, whereas Abdus was doing important work in trying to improve the final stages of
renormalization theory and it was immediately accepted as an important combination. So, while
on at a social level there may have been forces acting which I don't know about but I would
guess they may well have been, but on the scientific level he was doing important work in this
modem subject which was then reasonably advanced. I mean the first bits of renormalization had
been done, but there were difficult cases to do with things called overlapping divergences —
which I don't know too much about but I know the words — and in which he did an important
proof that you could carry out the procedure also for then [correct word?]. So that was all a part
of the program you see, so that wouldn't create tensions. And I don't think people would have
minded that it was a person from Pakistan who had made that progress. An individual might —
there are always individuals, right, who will have nasty and silly emotions, but I mean taking the
community as a whole, it was so technical what was being done. Important but technical and
mainstream. So I would guess that wasn't an issue, but I may be wrong.
De Greiff:If we don't take the case of Salam particularly but your general experience in
Cambridge from' 45-'47 and then' 49-'52, would you say, is it possible to trace that difference
between those being or Cambridge people and those being outsiders, like a sense of being from
English or being English and those who weren't? Not taking the case of Salam.
Sciama:Well do you mean because of the race? Because I mean Rutherford came from New
Zealand, but he was very — That's different, but I mean he was completely accepted. He might
have been regarded a bit — You see, the English are very snobbish even today, but even more so
then probably, so some people might have regarded — and Rutherford was very hearty and bluff
and not very polished let's say, you see, so they may have said, "He's a chap from the outback" a
bit. I don't know. You know. But not to the same extent as they would someone from India or
Sciama:But how much that affected Abdus' daily life I have absolutely no idea, and I suspect
not very much. But I don't know. And certainly, as I say, his scientific work was provocative,
you see. It was valuable and he started to make a reputation because he'd proved this difficult
technical thing which more or less completed a certain program. But it was not in any way
provocative, you see. It didn't raise people's hackles. And therefore there would be less reason to
start thinking about the social or cultural differences. But you have probably talked to other
people who would know better whether he in fact suffered indignities.
De Greiff:[Inaudible phrase] you say.
Sciama:I'm only guessing, yes, but you understand I hardly knew him.
De Greiff:When did you start meeting him more regularly?
Sciama:No, I wouldn't say I ever met him regularly, but I came here occasionally after ICTP
was setup. I mean before — I joined CESAR [spelling?] around 1981, but in previous years I
would come on visits to ICTP for programs, and I once even organized for them a summer
program in astronomy in the Casteleto [spelling?] [inaudible phrase] castle, but this little
Casteleto next door.
De Greiff:[Inaudible phrase]
Sciama:So I had a link. Then also I would meet him from time to time and chat a little bit, but
I was never — I saw him more of course when I moved here in '81. But I wouldn't say I was — I
mean an entourage isn't the right word, but I mean I was, it was always rather casual you
understand. That's why I partly wondered whether I could be any use to you, you see.
De Greiff:Please correct me if I'm wrong, but according to my files the first time you came
here was in '68. Is that right?
Sciama:I have no idea. You know I'm hopeless at remembering years. If you've got
De Greiff:Yeah, but mine could be wrong.
Sciama:I don't know. I don't know.
De Greiff:There was this, the famous 1968 symposium on quantum [inaudible word] physics
which was a huge event.
Sciama:Oh, I think it is. I do, I remember that, yes, yes.
De Greiff:You talk about general relativity [inaudible word] application [correct word?].
Sciama:I remember more vividly 1972 I think it was when there was the Dirac [inaudible
De Greiff:That's right. Right.
Sciama:That I remember very well. The only one I did go to, it's quite true, but I've a more
hazy memory of it.
De Greiff:Well, do you remember "72?
Sciama:Oh, wow. Oh, [inaudible phrase].
De Greiff:Well let me ask you something before about that meeting.
De Greiff:There was a sort of boycott from some students from the universities [inaudible
Sciama:There was a [inaudible word].
De Greiff:Which very few people [inaudible word] or actually remember nowadays. Do you
Sciama:I certainly do. In fact I remember it partly because I was just slightly involved, in the
foreign sense only. Because my topic — I gave a talk — was about cosmology, it was put first. So
after Dirac himself had spoken an introductory talk, I was actually the first speaker. You know
there's a book of the meeting.
Sciama:I was actually — not because of my importance, but because my topic put me first.
And that talk was originally going to be a [inaudible phrase] at the university or something, and
they moved it here because of this rebellion. And then I remember Wigner, I thought in a rather
undignified way, when some students came into the main auditorium perhaps when he'd
lectured, and he prepared a scroll. Do you know about this? He unscrolled a big scroll.
De Greiff:I don't know what he said. I know that happened.
Sciama:Yes. It said something like this. I don't [inaudible word] the exact words, "Insults
from you are praise indeed." Something very similar to that. And he sort of went like this —
De Greiff:Was it in English or —?
Sciama:In English, in English, yes, and he went like this. Well, whatever language might it
Sciama:Oh, but no, but this was — being at ICTP Italian played no part in there.
De Greiff:It was [inaudible phrase].
Sciama:Oh, because the students were Italian. I'm sorry. I do understand. Sorry. But in fact it
was in English, and it said something rather like that, and he proudly and — you know, to show it
to them all.
De Greiff:Do you know what was the reason for that?
Sciama:Yes. It was because — I think Murray Gell-Mann was also involved.
De Greiff:Yes, he was.
Sciama:Because they were on a system in American called the Jason committee, and they had
given advice about how to deal with communists in the Far East who had to be dealt with by the
Americans, roughly speaking. And I think poor Murray had written a report saying the way to
deal with them was to cut their ears off. Or this at least is what the students understood. And I
think once when he was in Paris and then when he was here they went for him. And they went
for Wigner, and I think to some extent John Wheeler. They were all rather right wing.
De Greiff:Excepting [inaudible phrase].
Sciama:Yes. Okay. So but it was through their part in Project Jason and advice they gave
about — I don't think it was Vietnam at that time.
De Greiff:It was.
Sciama:Okay. So it was that sort of thing.
De Greiff:And how was it discussed or [inaudible word] here?
Sciama:Well, I do remember that Kasamir [spelling?], who was one of the main chairmen at
the first part of the meeting, understood that the students were going to try and interrupt the
actual meeting proceedings, and he said, "Well, we don't want that, because this is a meeting of
physics in honor of a great man," and "but let us have a discussion in the evening when we could
discuss the problems that worry you without interfering with the actual scientific proceedings."
De Greiff:Did it happen?
Sciama:Now my memory is beginning to give out. I think that happened. I think it did. But I
remember him saying that as a way of diffusing the interruption of the scientific proceedings. If
you are sufficient to the scholar, I think Kasamir is still with us. You could ask him about that.
De Greiff:I didn't know this.
Sciama:I remember as him standing there and saying, "Let us not interfere with the scientific
proceedings, but we do want to discuss these important and controversial issues. Let us have a
session where those issues are specifically discussed."
De Greiff:How was it viewed, the fact that people like Murray Gell-Mann, Wigner — well,
even Weinberg and very important theoreticians worrying about State Department problems like
the Jason division. I mean, how was it viewed by the other colleagues, the Europeans colleagues?
Sciama:I think probably everybody had a personal reaction to that. Some good friends of
mine I think worked for Jason in the summer without being strongly right wing or something,
because they thought that some of the things that were being done was let's say in the interest of
the United States, but to some extent were on the right side after all you know, because the
opponents were likely to be very — call it dictator types or something, you know what I mean, or
fascistic. Most of us thought people like Wigner and Salam [correct name?] were too right wing
to be acceptable. I was closest to John Wheeler of those people, and through the link with
relativity, and it was John who invited me to be a sort of part-time professor in Austin, Texas
before I came here to Cesar [correct word?; spelling?]. But I never discussed politics with him. I
knew he was very right wing.
Sciama:Wheeler. When we discussed mass [correct word?] principle of relativity or my going
to Austin he was always very courteous with me but I guess left — I am not myself politically
activist. I have views, and I don't like strongly right-wing views, but I'm not busybody, you
know, it's a not a main thing for me. So I might know someone like Wheeler who was rather
strongly and overtly politically minded and it would bother me slightly, but it wouldn't get in the
way if I was friendly with him and we talked well about relativity. If you like, J was a big you
might say "copping out," since political problems are important for us all. But I tended not to be
activist at all, and obviously I cared, had views, but I wouldn't make a big of them. I might talk
privately with friends about these things, but I wouldn't have a row with a right-wing person as
part of the program or anything like that. So it didn't play any part in my relationship with
De Greiff:I think this is another difficult question, but where would you put Abdus Salam in
the political spectrum? Where would you put Hoyle?
Oh, gosh. I don't know that I know. See, Salam had this very special desire to help
third world physicists. But I wouldn't call that exactly political, but it's got political associations,
like helping people in a difficult situation is like a politically sympathetic thing to do. But it's not
the same as politics meaning are your left wing or right wing or what; it's more, "Here are people
who are disadvantaged scientifically, and let's help them." So the political aspect is a big — is not
really the main point you see. So honestly if you ask me what his political views were other than
wanting to help the third world, I'm not sure that I would know, because to be honest, he
[inaudible word] books with articles full of visionary messages. I'm afraid I didn't read them,
and I wouldn't be able to tell you really. In a technical sense of politics rather than just wanting
to hurt third world scientists I wouldn't be able to tell you what his political views were. And in
Hoyle's case I would imagine he was somewhat left wing, I would guess, but I don't know, I'm
only guessing. And I read his book of memoirs and he probably said, but I've forgotten. I mean
unless the person was very strongly political — well I'd say Wheeler on the right or Pat Blackett
[spelling?] on the left, you see.
De Greiff:On the left.
Sciama:Who made quite a cause of being political. I would know that Blackett was strongly
left, because he made a big deal of it you see. And in that sense I wouldn't particularly know
what Fred's views were, but I would imagine they would be strong views, because he always had
strong views. So again with Abdus you see, it's not something that — Because I'm not so
politically conscious myself, I don't sort of seek out to know the political views of people I come
across, unless the matter was very prominent like in the Blackett or Wheeler case where it would
be obvious. I wouldn't necessarily know.
About in 1968 and 1972, coming back to the ICTP, how was it viewed by
someone from a prestigious university like Oxford or Cornell or Princeton the fact that Dirac and
Heisenberg were coming to ICTP, was it a [inaudible word] that there was high quality research
in the place? What was the significance —?
Sciama:Let me answer you indirectly, because by chance the following incident took place
during that meeting. I found myself in the elevator at ICTP with Heisenberg — who I didn't
know. But remember, I knew Dirac well. Not only had I been his student, I called him Paul after
a few years, although he was rather reserved. But I mean I didn't think it was cheeky of me by
then. After all those years I couldn't keep calling him Professor Dirac. So I found myself in the
lift with Heisenberg. And I thought, "I ought to say something." So I said to him — something I
had felt about Cambridge. Cambridge was a very snooty place you see. I said, "What a shame it
is that Cambridge has done nothing to celebrate Dirac's birthday. He had to come here as it were
for the celebration." And Heisenberg looked at me very superior and said, "Dirac belongs to the
world." And fortunately the doors opened very soon after that and I ran away. It was such a
putdown, you know, but not quite the [inaudible word]. I mean, related to your question but not
quite answering your question. But Cambridge was very snooty. However great a person like
Dirac, they wouldn't necessarily organize a party or a conference for the birthday you see. And
because he had connections here and he knew Abdus from St. John's and from visits here it was
a natural place to hold [inaudible word].
De Greiff:I knew he came regularly.
Sciama:And he would come regularly, indeed. Absolutely. And I met him here a number of
De Greiff:I'm trying to figure out the significance of Dirac here trying to understand the
difference from someone who had Dirac at hand [correct two words?] to say [inaudible phrase], I
mean on a daily basis [inaudible phrase] and someone coming from the third world in which
Dirac or Heisenberg [inaudible phrase] they'd be a big name or sort of [inaudible word].
Sciama:Well it's very interesting that Abdus so admired Dirac because they were so utterly
different in personality you see. Whereas Abdus was a — well, you know, a very, very strong,
forthright man who dealt with all these senior administrators and government people to set up
ICTP. He was a lion [inaudible 2 words] you see. And Dirac was a sheep. I mean apart from
being a great genius in his work, once I was in Warsaw with him at a meeting and he was just
[inaudible word] a bit worried he'd get lost or something, and he was absolutely you know
worried about the situation. So in those ways they were completely opposite, but Abdus so
admired — he might have also admired Dirac's moral [inaudible word] etcetera, but primarily his
wonderful combinations to physics you see and his pure nature if you like. He admired him
tremendously you see, whereas he might have said, "Yes, he's done some great work in physics
but he's not a lion." That was not his attitude; it was, as far as I understand it, it was tremendous
admiration. And the fact that Dirac paid this attention to ICTP was a terrific boost to Abdus. And
so they set up these Dirac prizes and so on, which as it happens we have the one tomorrow. There
is the thing, the notice. So that always interested me you see that Abdus so admired someone
whose character was reserved and quite beyond belief outside the dynamic power of his reign as
a physicist. So there you are. That's the way the world is you see. You might admire your
opposite as long as they've got something tremendous that they gave the world, you know.
De Greiff:The 1972 conference, would you say it was more historical than scientific or more
scientific than historical? Its relevance.
Sciama:Probably more historical.
De Greiff:And the 1968, I assume something like that as well.
Sciama:Yeah, see, because it was so bored, you see, it was so bored. I must tell you. Do you
know the story of Vander Vadins' [spelling?] lecture?
Sciama:Dh, it's a lovely story out of the '72 meeting. Vander Vadin, do you know was a pure
mathematician who had also written a book on group theory and quantum mechanics. And he
was given an historical talk about the development of quantum mechanics at this meeting — at
which every living founder of quantum mechanics must have been present you see. So in the
middle of his talk he was telling us a story about Pauli [spelling?]. And, "Perhaps Pauli's one
mistake," he said, "because there was a chap called Lankshoss [spelling?]" — you don't know this
De Greiff:No. [Inaudible phrase] story.
"who had written a paper on Green's [spelling?] functions in quantum mechanics"
in '25 or '26 or something. "And Pauli wrote a paper to say that Lankshoss' paper was wrong.
But actually Pauli was wrong," Vander Vadin told us, "but in a trivial way because it was a
question of how the Green's function was defined and the reciprocal of the normal had been
defined" or something, and if you didn't notice that you'd think some of the formulae were
wrong; that the formulae were right if you paid attention to it. So he said, "So this was Pauli's
one mistake you see." At that moment a little old man sitting in the middle of the auditorium,
looking a little like a pocket-sized Einstein with sort of long white hair, vaguely like, but small,
got up and said, "I am Lankshoss." You see, Vander Vadin spoke as though Lankshoss had been
dead for twenty years. Lankshoss was being a professor in Ireland for many years. He was
probably long retired by then, but he was still alive and had come to the meeting. And he got up
looking like a ghost because of his frailty and his white hair, and he said, "I am Lankshoss" and
the effects on Vander Vadin was electric — as I say, because he thought he was talking about you
know somebody that had been dead, twenty years. And it was marvelous. I was in audience
[inaudible phrase], so Vander Vadin did like that and [inaudible phrase] and said — I can't even
say it, it's so funny, "You are Lankshos." And everybody cheered. It was the top moment of the
meeting. Nothing to do with Abdus, but I mean part of the scene as it were you see, but that was
a great moment.
De Greiff:[Inaudible phrase] was there as well.
Sciama:That was my next going to be — But unfortunately I think [inaudible phrase] C. P.
Snow [spelling?] is dead. C. P. Snow more or less invited himself to give the main speech at the
De Greiff:What do you mean that he invited himself?
Well, he wanted to — You know Snow was a rather pompous fellow who had a
scientific education and then became a novelist and wrote these things about the two cultures and
so on, and he wanted to perform as the main banquet speaker. I don't know if he literally invited
himself. We said that a bit nastily you see, because we didn't really approve of him. He'd done
nothing to harm me, but he was just a bit pompous. And so he gave this utterly inappropriate
banquet speech to this international audience so Cambridge [correct word?]. His main topic was
who was more important — if I remember right — G. H. Hardy [spelling?] —
Sciama:You know this. Or Dirac.
De Greiff:Yeah. It was exactly that.
And Hardy was [inaudible phrase] mad and I knew him, and he'd been at Trinity, but
also I met him at Trinity but he'd also been at Oxford. So I appreciated — And then of course
Snow had been a Cambridge man. So I appreciated that there was a mild interest in this question
to someone from that particular tradition you see, but to this cosmopolitan audience to spend
most of the time discussing this point, it just seemed to be completely the wrong [inaudible
word]. But part of the Snow style, you see, to make a big deal of these pompous cultural things.
Anyway, it was awful. So that was that. And then people started telling their Dirac stories.
[Inaudible phrase] had a connection with him, but I didn't think they were quite international
level stories, you see. They were more private stories. So I didn't say anything you see. So
afterwards I saw Dirac. We were leaving the hall together. I said, "Paul" I said, "I have some
Dirac stories, but I didn't think they were good enough to tell." And he said, "You should have
told them." You know he always in that efragrammatic [spelling?] way. That's exactly what he
said. He said, "You should have told them." So I told him one or two, which I won't bother to
tell you now because it gets too far away from Abdus. But Dennis…
De Greiff:Would you mind to tell me one of them? I'm curious.
Sciama:All right. Well, I'll tell you the one that I really enjoyed the most. When I was his
student I went to see Dirac and I told him what I was doing and he said, "Shall I tell you what
I'm doing?" This was 1951 I suppose. "Shall I tell you what I'm doing?" So of course I said,
"Yes." So he said he was then working on a classical theory of the electron because he was
arguing that in the following ways, he argued that if you take a point electron that was really a
quantum mechanical concept from the beginning. Classically you would think of electrons as a
sort of streaming wavelike things, and then when you quantized you would get point objects.
And so he had a classical theory of a flowing stream that represented, as it were, an electron or
electrons. And he was telling me, "So I've got this hydrodynamic theory of the electron and I use
hydrodynamic variables to describe it. In particular," he said, "my original scheme that I
published there was no vorticity in the stream." And then Gado [spelling?] told me that people
who work with electron beams find that quite easily there is vorticity in the beam. Although
those were real electrons of course, not classical electrons, but Dirac, he said, "Don't you think
you should generalize your theory to bring vorticity?" So Dirac said, "So I've done that. Shall I
tell you about it?" So of course I said yes. So he said, "Well, in the late 1880s people in fluid
dynamics like Stokes and others had variables. It was Kletch [spelling?] variables for ordinary
hydrodynamics with vorticity, you see, and they had [inaudible phrase ]”
...following their lines but then adapted it to my own way of looking at it and then
preparing for quantization you see. So he explained this to me for about ten or fifteen minutes.
Well I have to tell you, I didn't understand a single word. I was rather — first of all I didn't work
in that kind of thing, and secondly I was rather immature as a physicist. I didn't understand a
word. But I thought, "I've got to say something. What to say?" So I said, "Is that the most
general way of doing it?" I thought that was safe, you see. So he said, "I don't know," and then I
shortly after left. That's Act 1. In Act II of the story, a few weeks later there goes up a notice on
the board, "Professor P. A. M. Dirac will give a seminar." And although his work was getting
rather disjointed from the mainstream development of physics at that time, he was still the great
guru or the great man in Cambridge at least. And the place was packed with the audience. Every
mathematician and physicist in Cambridge was there to hear his seminar. So he starts telling this
story about, "I assumed there was no vorticity and then Gado said, and so I introduced Kletch
variables and carried out the following procedure. And then he suddenly says, "And at that point
Mr. Sciama made the important point to me that that was not the most general way of doing
it." Obviously if the floor could have opened then I could have sunk into it. Because I mean, his
reputation correctly was supreme, you see, and I was a nothing. But the main point is it wasn't
even of course — what did I know? [Inaudible phrase] I hadn't understood a single word he said!
So I was so embarrassed. And it's not that I wanted to have false glory around me. I mean, you
know, that didn't suit me. Anyway, that's the story. So I repeated this story to him as one of my
stories you see when I saw him after the banquet. And he was so nice and kind, and he said,
"Well, I understand that, but no doubt what you said nudged me." It's a silly story and it's more
about me than about him perhaps, I don't know, but anyway it's just slightly strange. So that's an
De Greiff:Any other [inaudible word] memory of that 1972 meeting? I'm trying to
reconstruct as well.
Sciama:No, the highlights for me at least were the Vander Vadin thing, the student rebellion,
a little moment with Heisenberg, and then this little chat with Dirac after the banquet. I told him
one or two other stories I think from then, but that was the main one. It was of course for me,
also in the false position of giving the first talk after Dirac's. I mean, as I explained to you,
because they booked cosmology first, but nevertheless it made me a bit prominent. It
embarrassed me somewhat, but it was also very exhilarating. You know how you can be
ambivalent about these things. So that was for me exciting. But you see, you asked me about like
its’ working value, it was more a celebration. You learnt of course from the other talks, but it
wasn't like a conference on a topic that's made recent progress and you want to hear what the
other experts think about something because it influences your research you see. It was more
cultural than social.
De Greiff:Apart from these two occasions in 1968 and '72 which were mainly cultural as
you said, did you attend at all [inaudible word] courses or conferences? There was one in '75 on
general relativity, but I'm not sure if you came.
Sciama:I'm not sure. No.
De Greiff:I'm not interested in a particular conference, but did you —?
Sciama:Well, yeah, I'm sorry, I can't remember all the different occasions. I do remember the
'68 one, the '72 one and the one I organized in the Casteleto on astronomy. And —
De Greiff:Which was also those years more or less?
Sciama:Well, I suppose it was around that time, but I can't remember when. It must be in the
record, but [inaudible phrase].
De Greiff:Sorry. I haven't checked about that.
Sciama:No, I mean it's nothing to do with Abdus, but it was like activities that the [inaudible
De Greiff:No, no, no. It's my fault.
Sciama:But they promote so many activities you wouldn't want to pick on that one.
De Greiff:The point that I want to address is, when you organized the one here I suppose it
was bearing in mind the fact that [inaudible word] at ICTP with third world holdings [correct
word?] mainly. Or not.
Sciama:Well, some of the main lecturers were amongst the top younger astrophysicists. I'd
say my own [inaudible phrase] giving the talks, but like Martin Reece [spelling?] was there, and
Pachinsky [spelling?]. I remember those two in particular. I presume most of the audience was
third world people, but there was always a mix you see. With all these meetings at ICTP as you
know — and it makes sense. It's much better for the third world people to meet physicists from
the first world. These names are terrible, but you know what I mean.
De Greiff:Yeah, I understand.
Sciama:[Inaudible phrase]. Rather than just be amongst themselves they are getting more
benefit by talking to the more rather experienced people, so but I can't remember what the mix
De Greiff:Right. Well what I'm trying to understand is, what was the criterion used by those
who organized conferences or courses here to select the subject and the people to come. Was it to
[inaudible word] a conference or more to train people or to give a taste of what it's about?
Sciama:I can tell you one thing about that. Because that interested me a lot. Abdus came
under a lot of criticism and eventually changed his policy. Because in the early years particle
physics was particularly prominent amongst the subjects done at ICTP — which was his subject.
And when he was told that this wasn't a suitable subject for many of the third world countries,
particularly the less advanced ones — because he was sophisticated and technical and had no
industrial implications whatever which might have been useful back home. He had a reply then.
"Don't be patronizing," he said, in effect. I don't know if he used that word, but in effect he said
that. "This is part of our fundamental understanding of nature. Why shouldn't the physicists of
the third world be trained in and do research in this most basic fundamental thing? It's
patronizing to give them engineering to do or something." That was his — I mean he developed
that theme, but that was the guts of it. Later he came to recognize — I think that was a mistake in
fact. That was wrong. Nothing to do with being patronizing; it just wasn't appropriate to
concentrate almost entirely on this one extremely sophisticated topic when there were all Dennis
De Greiff:You think it was wrong to first approach?
Sciama:I mean Salam's defense was wrong.
Sciama:Although I see his point, but I think the third world did need lots of physics that
would be more of the real world. You know what I mean. Come on.
De Greiff:Yes, yes.
Sciama:Okay. Later he came to accept that, though it may have been grudgingly. But I mean
and so they started having plasma physics and this and that and the other. But it was a bit of a
fight to get him to do it. So I do remember that incident. And his defense was — I remember
hearing him say that, you see. He said, "Why should we? I mean after all we try to treat the third
world physicists as real, real physicists, try to help them and train them and where they have
inadequate facilities back home and we can give them this superb library and meet colleagues
from all over the world and so on. How can we deprive them of the most fundamental branch of
physics? So I very well remember that was his view. So my view would have been, "No, have
some of that because it's fundamental, but have other things as well." Then of course he had also
a question of dividing his resources and so on. You know, it's not quite simple.
De Greiff:[Inaudible phrase] was very, was pure at times [inaudible phrase] applied science.
Do you mean my science —?
De Greiff:Yeah, when you were organizing the Casteleto [inaudible phrase].
Sciama:Oh yeah. It was astrophysics, but again it was nothing to do with industrial.
Sciama:But if I was offered to do that and it interested me and I was pleased to do it and
perhaps even slightly flattered you know and thought it would be a good occasion to meet
various astrophysicists. I didn't say this isn't the right thing for the third world. But in any case,
if it had been chemistry I couldn't have organized it.
De Greiff:Yes. That's not what I intended to —
Sciama:What I'm trying to say is, it didn't particularly cross my mind when I organized that,
the question of how it fitted in with a total policy for the center as to what topics it did. In fact,
ironically, Abdus wasn't that keen on astrophysics and when I came here I had to argue with him
quite a bit to set up an astrophysics program in ICTP — which exists to this day which I run
together with a colleague Murray Kabanovitz [spelling?] who is now a professor at Goetingbaum
[spelling?] but he's here on a —
De Greiff:Who? I'm sorry.
Sciama:Murray Kabanovitz, but he's in Crete at the — he's here for the summer, but he's in
Crete at the moment. But I had to fight Abdus, to be honest, to say, "Look, astrophysics is great."
I mean, lots of — You see, it's one of these cultural battles. So you're talking about tensions. You
see there is tension, or there used to be, between particle physics and astrophysics. People like
Murray Gell-Mann were rather scornful about astrophysics. Abdus, I wouldn't say he was
actually scornful, but he wasn't very enthusiastic about it. Later he got a bit more because
astrophysics starting telling the particle physicists certain things you see. But when I came here
in '81 he wasn't very enthusiastic about astrophysics. And I'm not suggesting you put this in
anything you write, but I mean it's interesting. I had to sort of insist with him that it's a worthy
subject and just as fundamental as — in fact the origin of the universe may be even more
fundamental, I don't know. And he kind of slightly reluctantly gave me a grant to set up a little
program to invite people from the third world in astrophysics. But it's not something he
enthusiastically — He didn't say it's nothing to do with industry. It just wasn't particle physics you
see. So he wasn't enthusiastic about doing it, and I had to push him a bit.
De Greiff:That is a very interesting point, because it seems it's not only he wanted pure
physics, but he explicitly wanted particle physics.
Yes, because that was his great joy and love and what he devoted his whole life too,
and he correctly thought it was fundamental, but you can't say it's more fundamental than
cosmology, can you? Although you see, as I say, the particle physics —Don't forget also
cosmology is now emerged as a fully-fledged science, but when I started doing it, it was
considered so speculative and there were very few facts known. So particle physicists would be
not scornful about the universe or its origin, but scornful about our knowledge of the universe,
you see. And therefore not that cosmology wasn't potentially a great subject, but it wasn't as
practiced a great subject. You see that was really the point.
De Greiff:[Inaudible phrase] the fact that you had perhaps [inaudible word] highest level
physicists as audience, the fact there were people coming from third world countries?
Sciama:Not especially that I can remember, no.
De Greiff:Was it a course or more a seminar? I mean in the sense of was it a discussion
about what was happening in the very last years or more a course to give an [inaudible word]?
Sciama:You know, I don't remember too well. It was little lectures. People gave either one or
several lectures on topics that we chose collectively. But frankly, in things that like and other
workshops here, I wouldn't say the level of those workshops is at all seriously reduced because
the audience comes from handicapped countries. Because the nature of the handicap acts in a
different way. You see they don't have proper journals maybe and they don't have a decent
library and they don't have many people to talk to, but if they're at all trained as physicists and
written papers on physics some, they could hear in lectures material as serious as a Westerner
you see. The problem lies in other — I would say — in other directions. And I can't remember. I
think we were just giving normal expositions I would say.
De Greiff:That course at that meeting was on your suggestion or you were invited to do it?
Sciama:I don't even remember. Because I wasn't here then you see as a — Cesar didn't exist
at that time. Do you know I don't remember. I must have had enough of a link here that they
thought of asking me, right? But it's not that I came regularly every year or something. Do you
know I honestly — I'm terrible, my memory's gone. I remember being in Casteleto and I
remember people like Martin and Pachinsky being there, but if you ask me, I doubt that I would
have proposed it. But who approached me and how, do you know I don't remember?
De Greiff:Okay. Once you were here, how was the interaction with the, let's day,
directorship of the center in the sense that were you completely or mainly independent to
organize the course?
De Greiff:[Inaudible phrase]?
Sciama:As far as I remember, I wasn't interfered with in any way. I just — for one thing there
was so much activity they couldn't very well interfere with much. Because I don’t remember later
perhaps was more even than in earlier years. But certainly I can't recall any if you'd call it
problems at all. We were just given so much money to invite people on such a stay and then we
just went ahead. And they weren't astronomers anyway those people you see so they wouldn't
know how to interfere, if you see what I mean.
De Greiff:From your point of view outside those years there were two figures here,
[inaudible name] and Abdus Salam.
De Greiff:How did you see that? If you had any idea about that.
Well, I got to know [inaudible name; Powell?] quite well later when I came to Cesar,
which of course he founded and was director of for many years after I came here. And he was
quite interested in speculative ideas I had, and often he — until quite recently — he'd come and sit
where you're sitting and tell me his latest speculative ideas at 81 or something. Wonderful So if
anything I was closer to him than to Abdus, just because of the way personal chemistry works,
you know. Abdus was a bit fierce and Powell was very — is, I mean he's sort of a bit more
diplomatic. I mean he's a strong fellow inside and he built these wonderful institutions here and
he was a major influence as you know in getting ICTP here. Because he was then a professor at
the university. And he's got great strength with the ministry and so on — or had. I mean I don't
know now. He's of course in his early eighties. But probably still. He's still very active. But his
manner socially or in conversation is more diplomatic, more, more, more, more — Abdus was a
De Greiff:How did you see the relationship between the two?
Sciama:I have no idea. Because of that difference I don't know, but I mean no doubt Powell
was very valuable to Abdus as his number two for many years, and he knew that [inaudible
phrase] bring the center here. Whenever there was a ceremonial occasion — you know we used to
have Andrioti [spelling?] visit and so on — you know all about Andrioti in the center probably.
De Greiff:In the eighties. Is that right?
Sciama:Probably. But I'll tell you one story about Andrioti which in case you don't know
[inaudible phrase], but often Powell would be on the rostrum you see among, with the senior
people all giving a talk about the history of the center. I mean it was a tremendous power for the
center, you see, and obviously Abdus valued that. But that doesn't say what their personal
chemistry together was, and I have no idea. The Andrioti story I know, Andrioti was foreign
minister at the time of this story, and the money for ICTP came from the ministry, foreign affairs
— not the university thing, because of the link with the third world you see. So Andrioti played a
part in the funding. And they decided at that point — perhaps UNESCO [spelling?] had
previously funded it. Anyway, Italy was going to be the main source of funds. So they went to
Andrioti at that time and said, "Could we please have $8 million a year?" And Andrioti said,
"No. You could have $10 million a year." Have you come across that story?
De Greiff:No, I didn't. I knew about Andrioti.
Sciama:Well he was a great friend of the center that. I mean he'd visit from time to time, and
you would see his hunched back and so on, on the rostrum. But that story amused me anyway.
That was all before he became in disrepute of course.
De Greiff:There is a scientist which is quite close to Andrioti who is Antonio Zukiki
Sciama:Ah, that's another matter. Yes.
De Greiff:It's a character I know something about.
De Greiff:Because I used to come to [inaudible word] you see.
Sciama:Oh you did? Yes.
De Greiff:And I used to be a physicist.
De Greiff:And but [inaudible phrase] know much the relationship was between Salam and
Zukiki or Zukiki and the ICTP. What?
Sciama:I don't know. Zukiki of course is another of these — what's the right word for a
person that is very prominent and then has their own empire and so on?
De Greiff:Some [inaudible phrase]?
Sciama:Prima donna call it. I think. Yes. So there were several prima donnas in the story, and
he's one of them. But what the relationship with Abdus was I don't know I'm afraid. You'll
obviously find out from other people, and you can ask Zukiki himself no doubt. He's [inaudible
De Greiff:Will you explain a little [inaudible phrase]?
Sciama:Can I say, if you don't mind, because I get tired at a certain point.
De Greiff:No, I don't want to —
Sciama:I would like — I mean I am finding this very interesting, though most of it is not
totally relevant, but you're asking for it. But if we could stop in sort of about five minutes if you
don't mind, because otherwise I get too tired.
De Greiff:Yes, yes. Just a couple of more questions. Yes.
Sciama:But if you want to and if you don't mind the delay, when I come back [inaudible
De Greiff:I'm not sure [inaudible phrase] late August, but you are going to be in England?
Sciama:I'll be in Oxford if you want to come and see me there.
De Greiff:Yes, I can. Yes, I can.
Sciama:[Inaudible word] 29th of August, but I can change the booking with the air company.
So if it suits my wife I might leave a week earlier.
Sciama:But we might very well overlap, so —
De Greiff:Right. Okay. Just a couple last questions.
De Greiff:What was the reputation of the ICTP outside the ICTP, for example in Oxford or
in Cambridge? Was it a high level research center or had it [inaudible phrase]?
Sciama:Well, I must be honest with you. I think it had a mixed reputation, insofar as people
thought about — not, people perhaps didn't think about it all that much, but mixed in the sense
that some would say, "What a noble cause it is doing" and other would feel its standards were
about to be a bit uncertain because of its very nature. But physics is such a severe mistress that
that would be regarded as, you know —
De Greiff: Okay. Let me [inaudible phrase] with an example. One was a reputation ICTP
preprints had among the scientific community.
De Greiff:I mean, what was the idea people had? It's because when I have asked about the
preprints the idea I've got from people in the U.S. and the UK is that it was a quite low level.
Sciama:Well, I have to say — now see, I hate this business you know you're writing
something and so on, but I ought to be honest. That is the case. That is the case.
De Greiff:Why do you think that was the case?
Sciama:Well, it was probably true.
De Greiff:No. Right. But why —
Sciama:Because of a kind of unreasonable prejudice. It's because it would be totally
expected. You understand? In fact I can't bear it, because the idea of working without a library
and journals and colleagues is just murder you see. So I think it's wonderful what they do, but
you can't expect them to come here for a few months, except the one or two very exceptions and
write a brilliant paper, it's not reasonable. But if these preprints came out, and the lot would be
rather indifferent, or on the topic it was just chosen to write a paper on rather than you know
really advancing the subject. So I'm afraid they didn't have a very high reputation.
De Greiff:What strikes me about it, it's the number of papers produced was very large.
Sciama:Well, perhaps they that they had, you know, to justify being here they had to show
something for it beyond the — I mean the benefit to themselves must have been tremendous you
see. For instance I think the library there is one of the best physics I know in the world. Not that I
know that many, but you know it's terrific. And the colleagues, and the decent working
conditions you see. So to be there for anything from a month to a year — fantastic. But if they feel
that they ought to show something for it and they write a perfunctory paper — not all, but let's say
X percent were like that, you understand. Some were very good, but quite a few were a bit
perfunctory or on feeble topics or routine or just a mathematical problem just made up and not
much connection to the real world but with a bit of the real world attached to it. You know what I
De Greiff:Right. Yes, yes.
Sciama:So, yes, I'm afraid that is true. But I don't think that matters you see, because the
focus of the place is difference. But if you're asking me, that is I think true.
De Greiff:Very last question. There was a boycott in 1975 against the center. I'm not going
to ask you about the boycott itself but about the issue. In case you remember something we can
talk later on. It's an [inaudible phrase] in UNESCO [correct word?] which Israel was expelled
from Europe [correct word?] at least in the sense of some formalities in UNESCO. It's more
complicated than that. Do you remember the — at least the fact that [inaudible phrase] Israel?
Sciama:I remember something like that, and I don't know if it's connected with that, but
there was going to be a Fred Hoyle birthday conference at ICTP.
De Greiff:Right. Yes.
Sciama:And was it because of that — you can remind me — that it was moved to Venice in
fact? I have links with Venice you see, because my wife is Venetian and we have an apartment
there, etcetera, and the Cini Foundation laid on the Fred Hoyle birthday conference
because people didn't want it here. It was something to do with problems with Israelis or
something. Now I don't remember the year of that. Was it at that time?
De Greiff:It coincides with the year. I don't know if that happened. I know that a number of
people from Israel, among them [inaudible name], refused to come to Hoyle's birthday.
De Greiff:And there was a number of other countries which were canceled because of the
De Greiff:So it doesn't strike me particularly that Hoyle's birthday was moved to Venice
because of that. But thank you for —
Sciama:No, no, no. It definitely was a [inaudible word]. You see, as I was attending that
meeting I remember very well that it was going to be here and then had to be moved for that sort
of reason and it was moved to Venice. So surely — whether it was connected with other — I
suppose it was connected with [inaudible word] at that time, but I don't want to tell you more
than I know or remember.
De Greiff:No, no, no.
Sciama:But I do remember that it was explicitly moved because of troubles. And it may have
been because Israelis refused to come, or it may be also they feared other problems. I don't know
if they feared demonstrations becoming a problem. I don't remember the complete details, but
the fact that it was moved of course I remember, because I remember the meeting very well at the
De Greiff:So Hoyle's birthday was celebrated in Venice. I didn't know that.
De Greiff:It was you said at the Cini’s Foundation?
Sciama:Well, you know in Venice there is a little island called the Island of San Georgio
[spelling?] which if you stand on some marked square with your back to the cathedral looking
across the lagoon and the place called the Dudecka [spelling?], then on the left of what you can
see you can see a Palladio church, and there's an island. There's an island called San
Georgio, and there is a lovely, lovely foundation called the Cini Foundation which lays on
[correct word?; liaison?] conferences and workshops and things in lovely surroundings there, and
it's superb. And that's where it was held. And that was the reason. I mean, I well remember the
reason for the change was - I'm sure it involved — I mean it was certainly a political thing, but
I'm sure it involved Israeli aspects.
De Greiff:[Inaudible phrase].
De Greiff:But you didn't know [inaudible phrase].
Thank you very much, Professor Sciama. Thank you very much indeed.
Sciama:Not at all.