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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Victor Lenzen

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Interview with Dr. Victor Lenzen
By Thomas S. Kuhn
In Berkeley, California
June 28, 1962

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Victor Lenzen; June 28, 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: Raymond Thayer Birge, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, E. P. Lewis, Gilbert Newton Lewis, and Wolfgang Pauli.


This afternoon V. F. Lenzen, Professor of Physics Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, dropped into the office. In the course of a conversation which began on other topics, he came up with the following reminiscences about the early history of the quantum theory at Berkeley. What follows is dictated by T. S. Kuhn from notes immediately after the event.

In 1919 Lenzen was a student of H. P. Lewis who was then chairman of the physics department. In one of his courses Lewis repeatedly scoffed at the Bohr theory. Lenzen remembers his producing a photograph of the iron spectrum and asking how any pattern so complex could be produced by an orbital electron.

Lenzen suggests that H. T. Birge was the chief figure in bringing the Bohr atom to Berkeley. Birge had been doing spectroscopy at Syracuse and had been an early convert to the Bohr theory. At Syracuse he had already developed energy level diagrams, which he claims were the first of their sort. When he came to Berkeley in 1918, Birge immediately began to teach the Bohr theory despite significant opposition. Some of this opposition, Lenzen remembers, was expressed in E. P. Lewis’s seminars. Even more important as a source of opposition was the physical chemist, G. N. Lewis, who had developed the idea of a cubical statical atom on chemical grounds. He was, for a long time, vehemently hostile to the whole dynamical approach, particularly Bohr’s. That opposition was particularly significant here because chemistry under Lewis was very much the queen of the sciences. Physics was still a very poor relation.

This led Lenzen to remember that when Born was in Berkeley in 1926, he gave a talk on the new matrix mechanics to some seminar group. G. N. Lewis was present and immediately predicted that the new theory would reestablish the whole idea of the statical atom.

As an index to the state of Berkeley physics in those years, Lenzen remembered that E. P. Lewis felt that the physics department had arrived when an article by Birge received a footnote in one of the editions of Sommerfeld’s Atombau. The article in question was the one on the quantum theory of line spectra, Physical Review, 1921. Also important in lending status to the department was Sommerfe1d’s use of Birge’s value for the Rydberg.

Sommerfe1d visited Berkeley in 1923 at a time when Lenzen was just reading Pauli’s famous article on relativity theory. Lenzen was much impressed by the article as well as by Einstein’s highly laudatory review in Naturwissenschaften. He said something about the article to Sommerfeld and Sommerfeld then told him how Pauli came to write it. (Note the conflict of what follows with other reports.) Sommerfeld indicated that when Pauli had first come to Munich he already knew more relativity theory than the mathematics professors there. Sommerfeld asked him to do the Handbuch article in order to “disgust” him with relativity and turn him to something more physical. Sommerfeld also volunteered that he had had one even better, i.e., more physically-minded student -- Heisenberg. He said that when Heisenberg had first come to Munich he was actually too young to be allowed to matriculate.

In one of his four lectures at Berkeley Sommerfeld remarked on the Compton effect saying, “If this is verified the wave theory is done.” Asked about how other people at Berkeley had felt about the Compton effect, Lenzen remarked that after all none of them except E. P. Lewis [sic.] had known anything much about modern physics.