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Oral History Transcript — J. Robert Schrieffer

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Interview with J. Robert Schrieffer
By Joan Warnow
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
January 19, l976

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J. Robert Schrieffer; January 19, 1976

ABSTRACT: Childhood and high school education; undergraduate eduction at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bachelor's thesis with John Slater on energy level spacings in the multiple structure of transition metal atoms; graduate education at Urbana, Illinois, first paper under John Bardeen on the problem of transport of electrons bound to surfaces in semiconductors (Bardeen, David Pines); doctoral thesis on superconductivity, theoretical issues relevant to it; Leon Cooper's contributions, field theory, the bound state; Bardeen wins the Nobel Prize, emotional letdowns related to slow results of research; Stevens Conference on the many-body problem and American Physical Society Meeting, 1957; application of the Tomonaga variational technique, work on it with Cooper and Bardeen, problems with the second order phase transition, Bardeen's solution of the wave function; refinements of the new theory of superconductivity; feelings about working with Bardeen and Cooper; reactions of the scientific community to the new theory (Niels Bohr, Norman Ramsey); views on scientific creativity; the square dance analogy of the B-C-S theory; the Nobel Prize, 1972; American and Soviet competition for solution of superconductivity; objections to the theory based on gauge invariance properties; aftermath of discovery and Nobel Prize. Also prominently mentioned are: Jane Bardeen, John Bardeen, Nikolay N. Bogoliubov, Bohr family, Keith Allan Brueckner, Eli Burstein, Butler, Leon Cooper, Richard Phillips Feynman, Dave Frisch, Frölich, Ernest Guillemin, Douglas Rayner Hartree, Werner Heisenberg, David Hilbert, George F. Koster, Fritz London, Francis Eugene Low, Arkadii Beinusovich Migdal, David Pines, Léon Rosenfeld, Blat Schatloff, Ann Schrieffer, Frederick Seitz, Charles Slichter, Gregor Wentzel; Institute for Theoretical Physics (Copenhagen), and Niels Bohr Institutet.

Transcript

Warnow:

When you were first working on superconductivity did you feel that you were, how did you feel about the contribution you were making to the team when you were just a graduate student, can you remember?

Schrieffer:

Yeah, let's see. I recall it was a sense of wonderment in working on a problem which seemed, at least to my limited understanding at the time, was an enormously profound, fundamental, and important problem, which was sufficiently difficult that many people had attacked the problem and come up with relatively little. As a student I felt the chances of making a contribution were not very great in view of the fact that people, great scientists over the thirty-four years before that had not really done very well. I recall feeling, however, I guess because of Bardeen's constant enthusiasm for making real progress, that there was a chance of doing something collectively and I felt very much part of a team supported by the two more senior people, particularly John Bardeen, and that it was an enormously exciting experience.

Warnow:

Somewhere along the line you may have felt more like a peer in a way, though, is that true?

Schrieffer:

Gradually as things developed, particularly after I guess, I made the train ride in New York, I felt that I had made a significant contribution and at that point I felt a little bit more part of the central core of the team, but again, even till years later, I must say that I felt a very junior member of that group bcause I simply hadn't had the experience.

Warnow:

Right. Now, I'm also wondering a bit about the competition that you are aware of, when we first talked you said that Bardeen thought that Feynman was trying to tackle the problem.

Schrieffer:

Right.

Warnow:

Were you aware of others that may have been sort of hot on the trail?

Schrieffer:

Yes, there were a number of others, particularly Blat Schatloff and Butler had been working on the problem. Our main concern was, though, from Feynman as I recall. We felt that Blat Schatloff and Butler were moving in a slightly incorrect direction. It was much closer to the direction we were moving but we felt they missed the essential point. While Feynman is mercurial and we felt he could have shifted very quickly to the correct direction, so he was more dangerous potentially perhaps than some of our other members.

Warnow:

How did this concern, the center competition, affect the work?

Schrieffer:

Well, I think it certainly spurred us on, particularly after the big break occurred the end of January. Bardeen was absolutely convinced that we had to move rapidly or we might get scooped. Little did we realize that the Soviets had heard about the work, well, not that we didn't realize, or should have realized, but they heard about the work through the Phys. Rev. letter and that it was clear that Bogoliubov was going to work harder on it because he had done work very close to that in liquid helium, and that was, in fact, the real competition. But we moved fast enough and got out the main preprint before they really had a chance in the Soviet Union to apparently develop further the idea that we started on.

Warnow:

Right, great. When the theory was first presented, am I right in thinking that there were some questions raised by other theorists?

Schrieffer:

Yes, I think there were a number of questions that came up, in particular, there were questions raised by Gregor Wentzel concerning the gauge invariant properties of the theory. The theory was not formally gauge invariant but we argued, particularly John Bardeen argued, with great vigor, but the theory was gauge invariant but it wasn't obviously so and to make it obviously gauge invariant was very difficult. And it was only several years later that the formal theory was extended to make it obviously gauge invariant. Other people had similar concerns, I believe that Felix Bloch spent a number of years trying to understand the theory of superconductivity based on a Bose condensation because he felt the theory and its form was not gauge invariant. Many people had that as a hang-up, I would say. I think Frohlich expressed on a number of occasions, his concern that the theory really didn't give all that good results in detail and he felt the wave function wasn't very good. I don't know his current views but I think he may have changed.

Warnow:

You never worked again with Bardeen and Cooper, either one of them, as a team, right.

Schrieffer:

Not really, no, when I came back on the faculty I did talk with Bardeen almost every day or every other day. We never really published together except the Review paper.

Warnow:

Then did you independently try to answer some of these questions raised by theorists, is that the work you took on?

Schrieffer:

Yes. When I went to the University of Chicago in 1959, David Pines and I had just finished a small note trying to point out the error in Wentzel's reasoning when he was trying to set straight the gauge and invariant question and said that there could be no gap in the spectrum, at least according to the theory we'd written down. I was concerned with answering some of these issues but it wasn't a primary preoccupation. I feel John Bardeen, in this sense, did much more trying to defend the theory than the other two of us. Perhaps it was much more effective.

Warnow:

At the time you were working on the theory, or when it was solved, did you have any feeling at all of the importance of the work?

Schrieffer:

I think so, yes.

Warnow:

It was an important problem theoretically. But what about the ramifications in the applied area. Was there any thinking about that at all?

Schrieffer:

Well, it was clear that there were going to be enormous applications to magnet issues, certainly well known raised.... It was clear that such a remarkable phenomena, once it was understood in microscopic detail, like most other effects, one can base new phenomena on your new knowledge, and while that was behind the scenes, it never really drove us in any real sense towards solving the problem. Again, John was certainly aware and commented on the technical applications of superconductivity and was interested in that.

Warnow:

Mm, hmm. Now this work was such a peak experience(how did that affect your approach to your work afterwards?

Schrieffer:

Well, in a way it set my thinking in a direction that was somewhat unrealistic in the sense that once one makes a rather dramatic accomplishment at a young age albeit with the cooperation, help and supervision of a senior and a somewhat more senior person, it's always tantalizing to think, well, maybe next year or the year after that, you will make a similar discovery, or something. And that was something I had to get over, to realize that science isn't always done on enormous leaps. Well, intellectually I, of course, was aware of that; emotionally it's not always quite the same. The excitement of a remarkable discovery in a short period of time is the excitement rather than the rule. One has to get one's kicks out of the long pull of science as well as the high mountain peaks.

Warnow:

Right. Do you feel that you have done anything since that has been as challenging?

Schrieffer:

I don't really think so. That sort of problem may well be, you know, one in a lifetime. I hope it's not one in a lifetime for myself, but I'm well aware that it probably is.

Warnow:

Now, when we were talking the last time, you mentioned being very surprised at having won the Prize.

Schrieffer:

Right.

Warnow:

Can you try to give me some of the elements of that surprise, why?

Schrieffer:

The history of the Prize in superconductivity is a long one because I had heard rumors from the beginning sixties that there was some possibility we would get the Nobel Prize for it. And it wasn't that I'd never thought of the possibility. I'm sure anyone who made a contribution that has a certain amount of acclaim, thnks about that possibility. But we'd heard about it sufficiently often that I simply didn't think it would occur again.

Warnow:

Mm, hm.

Schrieffer:

And we'd heard it in something like '62, and '65, and '68, etc., so that by the time '72 came along I thought it was another cry of "Wolf." And it's not an easy thing to simply listen to that rather than have anything actually occur, so I didn't believe it because I'd heard too many cries of "Wolf" before.

Warnow:

It's almost a defense mechanism, isn't it?

Schrieffer:

I think it is.

Warnow:

It has a let-down and then... right. Do you feel the Prize has affected your relationships with other scientists?

Schrieffer:

I've noticed essentially no change in my life hardly in any way. It's a remarkable thing, its a wonderful thing that's happened, and I had the good fortune to go back to Stockholm this year because of the 75th anniversary of the Prize. But as far as anything, daily living or relationships with other people, I really haven't noticed a bit of change.

Warnow:

That's very interesting, isn't it?

Schrieffer:

Nor do I think of myself in any way, shape or form any different. I've heard some people feel if they've received the Prize, they must be very careful about statements they make, and have a certain aura about them, because that's what's done. And I must say I don't either beforehand I was that way and didn't have to change, or I don't believe that's a valid way of looking at it. But I've noticed very little change.

Warnow:

Has anyone appealed to you to use the power of the Prize for something?

Schrieffer:

Oh, yes.

Warnow:

And how do you feel about that?

Schrieffer:

And generally I've done exactly as I did before. I've tried to follow the dictates of my conscience and used the Prize only when I would have used my own name beforehand. That was very sparingly. And it's very rare that I try to use, perhaps my scientific awareness, or to... people aware of me because of my scientific contributions in non-scientific areas. I feel that that's not quite fair game. If you're speaking on a subject you should speak out of knowledge rather than use your notoriety in one field to give you more emphasis in another field. I try to use that very sparingly and I'm happy about that.

Warnow:

Mm, hm. Those are the questions that I wanted to ask you. I don't know if you want to say anything more on the subject.