Paul Zilsel

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Interviewed by
Steven J. Heims
Interview dates
March 21 and 26, 1988
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Interview of Paul Zilsel by Steven J. Heims on 1988 March 21 and 26, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA,

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Emigrates from Austria to England in 1938, and then to the United States in 1939; parents unhappy in America in the 1940s; father's socialism in Austria. Undergraduate (physics) at College of Charleston, SC., to University of Wisconsin for graduate study; meets Gregory Breit; M.A. in mathematics; joins American Youth for Democracy (Young Communist League), and then the Communist Party in 1946. Follows Breit to Yale University in 1947 to complete doctorate. After Ph.D. at Yale completed, works with Fritz London at Duke University; original plans for instructorship at Yale abandoned by Breit when he discovered Zilsel could not get security clearance; comparison of Breit's and J. Robert Oppenheimer's attitudes. Southern aristocracy and social anti-Semitism in Charleston; London's isolation at Duke and his views on intellectual and cultural level there; Paul Lazarfeld. Zilsel expelled from Communist Party in 1948; London teaches one year in London and Zilsel goes to Colorado State. The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings; Zilsel's lawyer; suspension from teaching at University of Connecticut. Nathan Rosen and the physics department at Technion (Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa; Zilsel, wife and children move to Haifa; joins physics department. Progression of Zilsel’s political views; attitude toward Jews and Arabs in Israel. Moves to McMaster University in Canada, 1956; discussion of old dissertation topics (low energy neutron-proton scattering theory, Pais’ f-field and its effect on scattering), and the switch to statistical mechanics and helium. Lecturer at Case Western Reserve University, 1958 (to avoid denaturalization); political activity, there; reflects on his need to take extreme political positions Conference in Vienna, 1987, "Die Vertriebene Vernuft;” pervasive sense of nostalgia and of having sold out. Reflections on father’s suicide, Zilsel's own loyalty to principle; and the state of Israel. Detailed discussion of Fritz London; his personal style; Zilsel's contribution to his two volume work on superconductivity and helium; joint paper with London on heat conductivity. London's lack of involvement in political activity, Breit's fear of it.


Paul Zilsels emigration from Austria in 1938 to England and subsequent to the U.S. in 1939. His parents’ emigration and their unhappy time in the U.S. in the early 1940’s. His father’s position in Austria in the 1930s and his socialism. The origins of Paul Zilsel’s political attitude.

Undergraduate years in Charleston, SC, where Zilsel got a bachelor’s in physics in 1943. His move to University of Wisconsin for graduate study and to teach ASTP. His move to University of Wisconsin for graduate study and to teach ASTP. He meets Gregory Breit in Madison. Zilsel obtained a master’s degree in mathematics at Wisconsin. His joining the American youth for Democracy, and — in 1946 — the Communist Party.

In 1947 Zilsel followed Breit to Yale U., in order to complete his doctorate in physics. Others who had come with Breit from Wisconsin to Yale, and also been politically radical, and would be picked up by HUAC. Zilsel was teaching at the University of Connecticut in 1963, when he was called by the “Committee.”

After his PhD at Yale — originally it was intended he would become an instructor there — he went to work with Fritz London at Duke University. The plan to keep him at Yale had been given up when Breit discovered Zilsel could not get a security clearance. Comparison of Breit’s and Robert Oppenheimer’s attitudes.

The Southern Aristocracy and social anti-Semites in Charleston. The social status of Fritz London’s European-born friend teaching in a Black college in North Carolina near Duke University. London’s isolation at Duke and contempt for the intellectual and cultural level at Duke. Paul Lazarsfeld in his Radio Research Group gave job to Paul Zilsel doing statistical work one summer.

Paul Zilsel is expelled from the Communist Party in 1948. One year Fritz London spent in England, and Zilsel took a job teaching at Colorado State University.

The HUAC hearings, Zilsel’s lawyer, suspension from teaching at Storrs. Nathan Rosen and the physics department at Technion in Haifa, Israel, Zilsel and wife and children move to Haifa where Zilsel joined the physics department.

The progression of Zilsel’s political views. Attitude toward Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Moves to Canada, McMaster University, in 1956. His dissertation had been in part on low energy neutron-proton scattering theory, the effects of chemical binding on the scattering. The other part of the thesis dealt with the Pais f-field — presumed at that time to account for the mass difference between protons and neutrons — its effect on scattering. When Zilsel went to work with London it was a complete change in topic: to liquid helium and statistical mechanics. At McMasters he again did research in Helium.

In 1958, lest he be “denaturalized” for living outside of the U.S., he took an academic job in Cleveland, first as visiting lecturer, then was kept as regular faculty. Political activities in Cleveland. Introspective reflections for his personal need to have taken extreme political positions.

In 198? Attended a conference in Vienna. “Die Vertriebene Vernuft.” Intellectuals who had been driven out of the country, as Zilsel’s father had. Victor Weisskopf attended the conference, as did many psychoanalysts. The sense of nostalgia expressed at the Conference, also the issue of having “sold out” among psychoanalysts.

Reflections on his own sense of loyalty to principle, and the importance of his father’s suicide.

His views on Israel and those of physicist Neeman.

Fritz London’s casual comment about the physicist Temperly. London’s style was to sometimes be ironic, but in personal matters always sympathetic and kind. Zilsel’s part in the two columns by London on superconductivity and Helium respectively. His joint paper with London dealing with heat conductivity. London did not engage in political activity, while Breit was frightened to the point of paranoia — although that paranoia was not altogether unrealistic.

Paul Lazersfeld is an old friend of the family — in age between Zilsel’s parents and himself. Had been a sort of student of Zilsel’s father, and provided a summer job — doing statistics — for Zilsel when a college student. Lazersfeld provided jobs for quite a number of people in his Office of Radio Research.

Fritz London was too skeptical, too ironical, to have made a good enthusiast for any cause — be it Zionism, Communism or whatever. He reminds me of the 18th century German scientist-philosopher Lichtenberg, who had a large collection of highly ironical aphorisms. He was also somewhat dwarfish with a hump.