I recently looked at Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein to see if there was anything about a connection with Proust. Sure enough there was a letter I had never heard of that Proust wrote to a physicist friend in 1921: ‘How I would love to speak to you about Einstein. I do not understand a single word of this theories, not knowing algebra. [Nevertheless] it seems to me we have an analogous ways of deforming Time.’ In understanding Einstein, algebra is the least of it.
Over the years Freeman Dyson, who died on 28 February at the age of 96, corrected mistakes I made, often in print, with letters written with great gusto. One, dated 21 August 1981, written in his almost calligraphic hand, begins: ‘Sorry my friend, but you goofed.’
In June 1982 I was spending my usual summer at the Aspen Center for Physics when I was approached by Philip Anderson. He was a very persuasive person who had won the Nobel Prize five years earlier. I didn’t really know him but he presented me with almost a command. It looked as if AT&T was going to be broken up and Anderson was worried about what might happen to Bell Laboratories, where he worked. He wanted me to write something about it, preferably for the New Yorker. My problem was that I knew almost nothing about Bell Labs. I knew that the transistor had been discovered there as had the radiation left over from the Big Bang. I also knew that it was an enormous laboratory employing some 25,000 people. Under these circumstances how could I possibly write something that made any sense? But Anderson is as I said a very persuasive person so I agreed to try something.
Sometime in the winter of 1969 a Pakistani colleague told me that the Ford Foundation had created visiting professorships at the University of Islamabad and asked if I would like one. At the time I was always open to travel adventure so I said sure. After I was appointed, the question arose as to how to get there. To me the obvious answer was to drive. I put the proposition to William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, who thought it an interesting idea. The magazine put up enough money for me to buy a Land Rover Dormobile. This legendary vehicle, which is no longer manufactured, had sleeping bunks and a stove – perfect for the job. I enlisted my friend the Chamonix guide Claude Jaccoux and his wife Michèle and in early September we set out. It took about three weeks to drive from France through Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan and then over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan.
In the spring of 1959 I won a National Science Foundation fellowship that enabled me to do physics anywhere I wanted to. I chose Paris. I had spent the last couple of years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and wanted very much to go to a city. Murray Gell-Mann was paying a visit to Princeton at the time. I had written a paper with a colleague suggesting how an idea of Gell-Mann’s could be tested experimentally. He dropped round to my office and asked what I was doing the following year. I told him. To my surprise he said he was going to Paris too, and added: ‘Stick with me, kid, and I’ll put you on Broadway.’ I didn’t then tell him that I was familiar with him from another life.
Trevor Nunn’s movie Red Joan, starring Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench, claims to be ‘based on incredible true events’, namely the life of Melita Norwood. But the story told by the film is so far from the truth it’s nonsense.
Reading Elaine Pagels’s new book, Why Religion? A Personal Story, brought back memories of my friendship with her husband Heinz Pagels. I met him in 1966 when he arrived at the Rockefeller University. I had no knowledge of his work but he struck me as a golden boy. He was very handsome and looked more like someone who might sing folk songs for a living than a theoretical physicist. He had been born in New York City in 1939 and attended Princeton. He then went to Stanford for his graduate work and took his PhD in 1965 under the direction of Sidney Drell. I recently looked at the paper they published and it still holds up. Heinz then spent a brief time at the University of North Carolina. I do not know how he found his way to the Rockefeller but there he was.
With what just happened in Pittsburgh it is easy to forget what things were like in the 1930s in America. I remember because I was growing up then. We used to listen to Father Coughlin on the radio. He said things like this:
I am rereading Proust. If anyone asks why, I tell them the story of Franklin Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Roosevelt paid a visit to the aged Holmes to find him reading Plato in Greek. He asked him why and Holmes replied: ‘To improve my mind, Mr President.’
With the death of Stephen Hawking and the discussion it produced on black holes it was a little surprising that there was little or no mention of the man who created the subject, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who died in 1967 at the age of 62. He often said that the J stood for nothing, but I have a copy of his birth certificate on which his first name is given as ‘Julius’. In his day Oppenheimer was the most celebrated physicist in the United States. His portrait had been on the cover of Time magazine and he was on first-name terms with much of the Washington establishment, until he lost his security clearance in 1954. It was said by people who had known him before that the experience changed him profoundly and he appeared diminished. He did not appear diminished to me when when I arrived at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1957 and was ushered into his office. The first thing he asked me was what was ‘new and firm’ in physics. I was spared trying to give an answer when his phone rang. It was from his wife. ‘It was Kitty,’ he said when he hung up. ‘She has been drinking again.’