Oral History Transcript — Dr. Alfred Lande
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Alfred Lande; June 15, 1962
ABSTRACT: This interview was conducted as part of the Archives for the History of Quantum Physics project, which includes tapes and transcripts of oral history interviews conducted with ca. 100 atomic and quantum physicists. Subjects discuss their family backgrounds, how they became interested in physics, their educations, people who influenced them, their careers including social influences on the conditions of research, and the state of atomic, nuclear, and quantum physics during the period in which they worked. Discussions of scientific matters relate to work that was done between approximately 1900 and 1930, with an emphasis on the discovery and interpretations of quantum mechanics in the 1920s. Also prominently mentioned are: Ernst Back, Niels Henrik David Bohr, Max Born, Constantin Caratheodory, Peter Josef William Debye, Paul Ehrenfest, Albert Einstein, Walther Gerlach, Samuel Abraham Goudsmit, Werner Heisenberg, Heinrich Mathias Konen, Peter Lertes, Fritz London, Erwin Madelung, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Planck, Erwin Schrodinger, Arnold Sommerfeld, Otto Stern, George Eugene Uhlenbeck; Artillerie Prufungs-Kommission, Universitat Gottingen, Universitat Marburg, Universitat Munchen, Universitat Tubingen.
Kuhn:Clearly at Frankfurt there was a pretty complete intermixture between theoreticians and experimentalists.
Kuhn:And the situation at Gottingen?
Lande:In Gottingen was close cooperation between mathematics and physics. Think of Minkowski and relativity theory. There was an institute for applied mathematics where Runge was director. And Runge was one of those who made observations about the anomalous Zeeman effect and found out the so-called Runge rule, one of those rules concerning the spectrum itself. And the main point was the Mathematische Lesezimmer. I think I mentioned this… And the constant gathering of mathematicians and physicists in one of these cafes.
Kuhn:In general, among the mathematicians and physicists who gathered in cafe’s, are the physicists all theoretical physicists?
Kuhn:What about the experimentalists?
Lande:The experimentalists have no time to go to cafes. They have to watch their tubes and counters and so on all the time, and you really did not go there. Most of the theoretical physicists, if they were really very good, came from mathematics. Think for instance of London. Fritz London was one of those young men -- I knew him when he was still in high school -- who wanted to know everything. So the best to do is begin with philosophy. There you go to the inner wisdom of the world. He became dissatisfied with philosophy, it was too vague. He became a mathematician, a very thorough mathematician. By the way, his father was a famous mathematician also. So there he really became a very great expert, which you can see from his papers. And still this didn’t seem to satisfy him. Then he became a theoretical physicist. And with his background of philosophical detachment and mathematical schooling, he made his great contribution to physics. But there are very few examples where experimental physics became theoretical in recent times. In the olden times, this was the only way, because there were only experimental physicists who knew anything about physics… In Gottingen there was a very close cooperation after the first world war between Max Born and James Franck. They were close personal friends and they had their working places very close together. This was after the war… Earlier there were two big physicists in Gottingen. The experimentalist was Riecke, who wrote an excellent book on experimental physics, in which he showed how much mathematics in fact he knew and how much theory he knew. And then was Woldemar Voigt, who was a theorist, but also had his place in the laboratory. But when quantum theory came, 1900 to 1910, Voigt was an old man and simply wasn’t very receptive to these new developments. He was completely classical and had a wait and see attitude and didn’t contribute anything. The younger people in Gottingen were not very happy about Voigt controlling the theoretical physics. For instance, Max Born’s Ph.D. thesis on relativity was not sponsored by Voigt but by Minkowski, originally begun by Minkowski and then afterwards in the mathematics department. So the whole development was physics and mathematics going together, in Gottingen… And in most other places except Gottingen and Munich, there was only sporadic theoretical physics at that time, before the first world war…
Kuhn:Now at Tubingen, when you moved there, had there been anyone in theoretical physics before you arrived?
Lande:No, absolutely nothing. Of course there were courses given on mechanics and heat and so on, but simply traditional courses.
Kuhn:Who gave those courses?
Lande:Before I got to Tubingen there was a very good experimental physicist, Fuchtbauer.
Kuhn:So generally those topics were given by an experimental physicist.
Kuhn:Were there problems for you moving into Tubingen because of the lack of a background and a tradition of theoretical physics there?
Lande:No, I simply had to give my courses. I gave a course on thermodynamics. I had to give a course on optics and electrodynamics. All three of them… Now who gave mechanics? As far as I remember it was given in the mathematics department.
Kuhn:But you found the group there relatively receptive? Of course it was a natural situation.
Lande:Quite, ja. In all of Tubingen there were three professors. Paschen was the full professor, I was associate professor, and Back was assistant professor at that time. And this was the whole physics. And in Frankfurt it wasn’t much more either. At my time there was first Born, then Madelung, then I was an assistant professor, and Gerlach. And Stern. They were all the younger assistant professors. This was all. It doesn’t compare with our department here, which has about 20 professors…
Kuhn:There was no one there who at the time classified as primarily an experimentalist, was there?
Lande:Yes, there was. Professor Wachsmuth who was professor of this institute, experimental institute, from the time before Frankfurt became a University. And he wasn’t a very great scientist. People always made jokes about him, about his ignorance of anything modern. But he was director and guided the whole thing. Then Born came in as the only theoretical physicist, and a few years later I dropped in, but only for a very short time. I was in Frankfurt, a resident in Frankfurt, not more than a year, or a year and a half.
Kuhn:It was your impression when we last talked, and it may be that nothing has come since, that people were much impressed by De Broglie’s work at the start. Now everything I can find out is that almost nobody saw it. That really people learned about De Broglie only when they were impressed by Schrodinger and then went back and looked at De Broglie.
Lande:Yes, this was my case certainly.
Kuhn:There was a little paper in 1925 by Walter Elsasser in Naturwissenschaften. Do you remember whether you saw that paper at the time or whether it made any impression on anyone?
Lande:No, I don’t think I saw it.
Kuhn:It becomes increasingly clear that in ‘22, ‘23, ‘24, that at least for some people in some places the inability to reconcile dispersion theory with at least anything like a Bohr atom is for some people a great big problem, and one that looks as though it’s going to be the source of a fundamental change.
Lande:For me it never was, I am sorry to say. By the way, quite a good, or fairly good, picture of the stand of quantum theory just before 1926, you may find in a little book which I wrote at that time. And in the very last chapter I made a Supplement, in which the new quantum mechanics -- not wave mechanics, -- but matrix mechanics -- was mentioned. Let me show it to you. And you find all these, or most of these problems discussed in it. The general impression of physicists about matrix mechanics was simply one of complete bewilderment. How can one derive experimental facts from a mysterious kind of calculation in which a times b is not b times a. This is absolute magic. At that time I had a letter from Planck. He had heard that the second edition of this book came out, and he wrote me a letter: “I wonder what you will make out of this matrix calculus.” It was what one called experimental mathematics. Just trying queer kinds of calculation and see what comes out of it. This was in fact what Heisenberg did. And as Born emphasized, he was at least able to put it in a more familiar form, as matrix multiplication.
Kuhn:Did you yourself make anything out of the very first Heisenberg paper?
Lande:No, absolutely not, not more than anyone else.
Kuhn:So it took the Drei-Manner-Arbeit before --
Kuhn:Reiche says when he first got the first Heisenberg paper, he happened to meet Carotheodory. Carotheodory looked at it, read it. He came back the next day and said, “You know, that’s terribly interesting and so clear.” That’s the only person I’ve ever heard of who reacted that way to that paper. Did you start yourself to try to do things with the matrix mechanics?
Lande:No. After the new quantum mechanics came out, I wrote a few, very few papers at all. I tried a little bit to improve some of the perturbation methods of (metals), but nothing much came out of this. But Carotheodory was in Gottingen as a mathematician, but he also was interested in physics; he wrote a very fundamental paper on thermodynamics in a mathematical secret language. And years later Born translated it into a language understandable for physics, for physicists. And only then it became known. I became interested in it, and then I wrote this Handbuch article on the same thing, through which it became much more widely known. And I tried to give my lecture on thermodynamics according to the Carotheodory logical and simple approach. And I remember Stern telling me -- Stern was a thermodynamicist by profession -- and I remember him telling me, “Don’t do that. That is much too abstract. And students never will catch on.” But nowadays in the better books on thermodynamics, it is always begun with the Carotheodory methods, the only really logical approach.
Kuhn:How about the Schrodinger papers, in contrast to the matrix mechanics papers? Did these have more appeal?
Lande:They had much more appeal to physicists. In general because these were known methods of differential equations and immediately gave a lot of results.
Kuhn:How about yourself? Did you feel more convinced by this than you had by the matrix mechanics?
Lande:Well you see, matrix mechanics and wave mechanics came out almost at the same time, and it took only a few months to show that they are this equivalent and only methodologically different.
Kuhn:You spoke a minute ago of the fact that you have after the emergence of the new quantum theory not written very much.
Every man has some period in his life when he can contribute something which afterwards turns out to be important. But only a very few enormously ambitious and talented people like let’s say Max Born, Heisenberg, do one important paper after the other all through their lives. And I simply wasn’t industrious enough. And in 1929 came the beginning of my settling in America. I had to learn English, which was not quite so easy. All kinds of other interests interfered, and I simply lagged behind the developments. It is only in the last eight years that I have the feeling again to do something which is of interest, which is of real interest, and something new. But all the time in between I just belong to the crowd.