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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Henry Linshitz

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Interview with Dr. Henry Linshitz
By Steven Heims

February 23, 1988

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Henry Linshitz; February 23, 1988

ABSTRACT: Discussion of Fritz London's papers, beginning in 1927, on chemistry, dispersion forces, adiabatic chemical reactions (Polanyi, Eugene Wigner, Eyring) and development of the theory of non-adiabatic chemical reactions (Clarence Zener, Edward Teller). Linshitz a chemistry student at Duke University; excitement of statistical and quantum mechanics courses taught by London; Linshitz's lecture notes, with corrections by London: detailed material on pre-1925 physics, Bohr model, classical dispersion theory; Linshitz recruited as City College graduate to Duke by Paul Gross, head of the Duke chemistry department. Leaves Duke to work with Kistiakowsky on shaped charges, 1943. Then to Los Alamos to work on implosion method lenses for atomic bomb; assembles bomb that was actually dropped (Philip Morrison). Returns to Duke after World War II. Recounts history of discovery of fission in 1939 (Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner); Bohr's liquid-drop model. Finishes thesis under Gross; London a bit aloof, closer to Lothar Nordheim and Hertha Sponer-Franck.

Transcript

Discussion of Fritz London's papers on chemistry, beginning with the 1927 Heitler-London paper on the Hydrogen molecule, continuing on with London's papers on "dispersion forces" (van der Waals attraction) and his papers on the mechanism of "adiabatic" chemical reactions, and his later paper on non-adiabatic chemical reactions. HL mentions work by Polanyi, Wigner and Eyring carrying further the work on adiabatic chemical reactions, and Clarence Zener and Teller developing the theory of non-adiabatic-chemical reactions.

HL asks SH if he could give him a copy of the papers on chemistry by London which SH has collected.

HL expresses he had not known of London's 1943 paper on large molecules. He mentions the early paper with Honl.

HL was chemistry student at Duke University when London was the "great scientist" there. HL had met Szent-Gyorgyi. Took statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics from London, and still has the lecture notes. The quantum mechanics course especially was exciting — London was able to provide students with the experience of reliving the actual intellectual process people went through which led to the formulation of quantum theory. The excitement lies in how the ideas developed and crystallized. Nowadays quantum theory is taught as a dogma. Only about 5 or 6 people were in London's quantum theory course, including Herman Epstein (now at Brandeis), Henry Freiser and Harry Soodak. Soodak was a physicist and probably understood London best. London went over HL's lecture notes and corrected fine points (HL showed the notes with corrections to SH — on the cassette our leafing through the notebook and commenting is barely audible — the notes contained detailed material on pre-1925 physics, Bohr model, classical dispersion theory, etc., some of the kind of material that is also in Max Born's Atomic Physics. The notes are very careful and London's fine correction indicates his concern for precision of concepts.) HL is astounded ("what!?") that London wrote a book on quantum chemistry that was not published.

HL was a graduate from City College in New York in 1940, and Duke made him the best offer for graduate study. He didn't know of Fritz London there. Paul Gross — then head of the Duke Chemistry dept.— was consistently picking the top graduates from CCNY for four or five years. For example he got all the "Ward medal" winners for several years. Stevenson wrote a recommendation to Duke from CCNY. Gross was working on dipole moments.

HL was asked to work on heavy water. He left Duke in 1943 — took job with Kistiakowsky to work on shaped charges; then went on to Los Alamos as an "explosives expert" (still very young) to work on implosion method lenses for the A -bomb. He was among those — like also Philip Morrison — who assembled the bomb that was actually dropped over Japan.

When he returned to Duke after Los Alamos, he gave a lecture on the nuclear physics of the A bomb and — with O.K. Rice at Chapel Hill to organize a PAS chapter. Linshitz recounts the history of the discovery of fission, 1939, Hahn. The role of Meitner, as he presumably did at that lecture. He also discussed Bohr's liquid-drop model. Recalls Fritz London's response to the lecture.

HL wrote his thesis under Gross, but finished it with Marcus Hobbs. London was a bit aloof. Perhaps close to Nordheim and Sponer at Duke. It is ok for others (besides SH) to listen to this tape, but do speak to Harry Soodak about London.