THE MAKING OF A PHYSICIST (p4)
I asked him, "What would you suggest?" He mentioned engineering, to which I replied, "I'd rather starve. If I designed anything it would fall apart." And sure enough when I took an aptitude test a year later I was told to take up anything but engineering. Then my father suggested, "Why don't we compromise — on physics?"
I pointed out to him that I had taken a course in "physics" in high school which was not only the dullest class I had ever had but also the only one in which I had ever done badly. We memorized the seven kinds of simple machines and then learned little bits about heat, light, electricity, magnetism, wave motion, and mechanics, but without any hint that these things might be related to one another. I couldn't possibly study such a subject. He said, "It'll be very different when you take advanced courses in physics. You'll learn general relativity and quantum mechanics, and those are very, very beautiful." I thought I would please the old man since it didn't really make any difference what I wrote down on this form. If through some miracle I were admitted to Yale and also got that one scholarship that would permit me to attend, I could always change my mind. In the end I was fortunate enough to be admitted and to get that scholarship. some physics.
When I arrived in New Haven I was too lazy to switch major subjects, so I actually took physics courses, among others. I got hooked on quantum mechanics and relativity, just the way my father had predicted, and I worked on physics for many, many years. Now, at the Santa Fe Institute, I'm encouraged to work on a broad spectrum of fields, so I'm back to archaeology, linguistics, and many other topics along with some physics.
scholarship that made it possible for me to attend Yale was called
the Medill McCormick Scholarship. It provided for everything. I didn't
even have to work at a "bursary job" like just about everybody
else on scholarship. I was a little troubled about the names on the
scholarship, though, because I knew Bertie McCormick ran the Chicago
Tribune and Joseph Medill Patterson ran the New York Daily
News, neither of which was especially anti-fascist in the days
leading up to the war. As a strong opponent of fascism — after
all, the Second World War was still going on when I got to Yale — I
was troubled to know that I was receiving money from people with
I was very fond of history classes, and I found Professor Dunham's
course on English constitutional history and Hajo Holborn's courses
on German and medieval history very stimulating.
Margenau's course didn't confine itself to philosophy of physics. It was really about physics itself, with some mention of philosophy in connection with each topic. I was quite happy to tolerate that much philosophy, and the teaching about physics was spectacular. Margenau by-passed all the fears that people have about learning relatively advanced subjects. I was only a sophomore and some of the students were juniors; we hadn't studied a great deal of theoretical physics. The advanced topics like quantum mechanics and general relativity loomed as difficult obstacles to overcome in the future, but he made everything so easy.
We started with Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics, and Margenau began by saying, "I assume you've all studied the calculus of variations."?" We said no. He then asked, "What do your math teachers do in class today? Apparently they don't teach you anything useful, just epsilons and deltas." He was talking about the highly rigorous approach to analysis that's often taken by professional mathematicians. He said, "I'll teach you the calculus of variations today, and then on Thursday and Saturday we'll do Lagrangian mechanics." That's what he did, and it didn't take longer than he said it would.