I never met Stephen Sondheim but I did have the chance to watch him close up. My sister was a member of the original cast of Company and she snuck me into a few rehearsals.
Jeremy Bernstein’s Nuclear Iran will be published by Harvard in October.
I never met Stephen Sondheim but I did have the chance to watch him close up. My sister was a member of the original cast of Company and she snuck me into a few rehearsals.
I may be the only living soul who witnessed both the first and last public performances of Tom Lehrer. In my junior year at Harvard, 1949, one of my roommates was taking an introductory course in calculus. It was a large course and graduate students were engaged to grade homework assignments. The customary thing to do when performing this tedious job was simply to annotate with crosses and question marks. But on my roommate’s papers there were amusing remarks and even the odd funny drawing. I asked who the grader was and was told that his name was Tom Lehrer.
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.
‘Their aim is that we accept a capacity of ten thousand separative work units which is equivalent to ten thousand centrifuges of the older type that we already have,’ Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said on 4 June. ‘Our officials say we need 190,000 SWU. Perhaps this is not a need this year or in two years or five years, but this is the country’s absolute...
Nelson Mandela was released from prison on 2 February 1990. On 26 February F.W. de Klerk ordered the dismantling of a South African nuclear weapons programme which very few people knew existed. At the time the country had six uranium bombs and one more under construction. De Klerk had looked into abandoning the programme a year earlier, but Mandela’s release was plainly instrumental in...
I graduated from Harvard with a degree in mathematics in 1951 and got my PhD in physics in 1955. I needed a job and a friend made a suggestion: on the Harvard campus there was a relatively modest cyclotron, simple enough for graduate students to operate. There was a position open for a ‘house theorist’. My friend recommended me and I got the job. My only formal duties were to try...
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.’
I had one encounter with Stephen Hawking. He came in the summer of 1989 to the Aspen Center for Physics and had the office next to mine. He travelled with an entourage with whom he could communicate with his voice synthesiser. His hands still worked well enough. He gave a full house public lecture and afterwards Sidney Coleman presided over a question session. Hawking had to type out all his answers on his voice synthesiser which took a lot of time. At one point Sidney said: 'You can have it fast or you can have it good.' If I had asked a question, it would have been: how did he come up with the idea of Hawking radiation? I have always found his paper hard going and have always marvelled at the simple result at the end. In A Brief History of Time he gives an account which explains the phenomenon but not the result.
‘The Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement,’ Donald Trump said last week. ‘For example, on two separate occasions, they have exceeded the limit of 130 metric tons of heavy water.’ In 1931, the American physical chemist Harold Urey discovered deuterium, the isotope of hydrogen that has a neutron in its nucleus along with a proton. He manufactured some ‘heavy water’ (D2O) and, I think, drank some. Heavy water remained an interesting laboratory phenomenon until the Second World War, when it took on new importance since it plays a role in the production of plutonium, which does not exist naturally on earth.
US presidents since John F. Kennedy have been followed everywhere by an army officer carrying a leather-bound metal Zero Halliburton briefcase. (Zero Halliburton was sold to a Japanese company in 2006, but Donald Trump hasn’t switched to an all-American manufacturer.) Inside the president’s ‘emergency satchel’, also known as the ‘nuclear football’, is a ‘black book’ containing such things as retaliatory options and the codes for launching them. The president has the power to choose any of these options and no one has the power to stop him.
In the early 1970s I wrote a profile of Albert Einstein for the New Yorker. I had known his secretary Helen Dukas since my days at the Institute for Advanced Study. She had come with him when he emigrated from Germany and lived in the Einsteins’ house in Princeton, which after his death she shared with his stepdaughter Margot. I asked if I could visit the house. She agreed. In Einstein’s study there was an etching of James Clerk Maxwell and one of Newton which had come out of its frame. This seemed symbolically correct. Helen offered to make lunch and while she was preparing the sandwiches she gave me a book to look at. It included a letter Einstein sent from Brussels to his wife Elsa in 1930.
In my earlier years I had some dealings with classified material, enough that I was able to see how arbitrary, foolish and transitory security classification can be. That there may be information on somebody’s computer that was classified at some point in the past doesn’t necessarily have any relevance for national security. In summer 1958, I was briefly a consultant for the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica. I had a Q clearance, the most rigorous that the Atomic Energy Commission had. This enabled me to receive classified information on nuclear weapons on a ‘need to know’ basis. During most of my short stay I didn’t need to know anything, but one day the theory division leader descended on me with stacks of numbers he wanted me to add up on a Marchant calculator.
At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stanley Kubrick was living in England. He decided that it was not safe there and he should move his family to Australia. Since he refused to fly commercially, he booked passage on a boat. But when he found that he would have to share the bathroom facilities with a neighbouring cabin he cancelled the whole thing, preferring to take his chances with the bomb.
I made my first trip to Tibet in 1987. One of my companions was a former British army officer called Garry Daintry, who told me that during the winter he helped out on the Cresta Run in St Moritz. The Cresta is an ice chute that you descend on a ‘skeleton’, a toboggan that you lie down on head first, and which has neither brakes nor any steering mechanism. You can try to control the speed by ‘raking’, rubbing the spikes of your special shoes on the ice, but you will inevitably reach speeds approaching sixty miles an hour.
‘And by the way,’ Donald Trump said to Hillary Clinton in last night’s debate, ‘another one powerful is the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal.’ His view on the Iranian nuclear deal, and the nuclear weapons situation in general, hasn’t changed much since he spoke with two New York Times reporters in March. Not surprisingly he revealed an abominable ignorance of the subject.
Until 1880, Aspen, Colorado was known as Ute City, after the Native American people who inhabited the valley. During the silver boom of the 1880s it was an extremely prosperous small town. There are still traces of that era, including the Wheeler Opera House. It came to an abrupt halt in 1893 when the silver market collapsed. The place was moribund for fifty years until the Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke, who liked to ski, saw the potential of the place as a resort. Among other things he created the Aspen Institute where industrialists like himself might be exposed to Aristotle. The Aspen Center for Physics, where I have been coming since the 1960s, was originally part of the institute. This used to be a pretty funky town. In 1970 Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff. There were some wealthy people like Paepcke but they pretty much faded into the background. Either you could ski or you couldn’t. Things have changed. There are now fifty billionaires who have some sort of property in Aspen. Three of the Koch brothers – Charles, David and William – have roots here. (William is the poor Koch brother, worth only $2.3 billion.) Donald Trump does not own any property here – though he once tried to build a hotel – but he has left a trail.
Most undergraduates at Harvard live in a ‘House’. When I went to the university in 1947 the place was overcrowded with soldiers and sailors returned from the war. So I spent the first two years in Dudley Hall, the ‘non-residents’ student centre’ in Harvard Yard. My room was number 46: I know this precisely because I have a letter sent to this address by Albert Einstein, dated 3 June 1949, telling me he did not give ‘oral interviews to avoid misinterpretation’. Since Dudley wasn’t considered a House it didn’t have a ‘master’ but a ‘graduate secretary’. Then in autumn 1949 I moved into Eliot House.
When I lived in Paris in the early 1960s the Bataclan was a cinema. It had been converted into one in 1926. (Incidentally, bataclan means junk; ‘tout le bataclan’ is slang for the whole ball of wax, or all that jazz.) I don’t recall going to it: there were so many other cinemas. It was built in 1864 as a site for café concerts. You could have your dinner and listen to an act. From the outside the building looked like a Chinese pagoda: chinoiserie was the mode.
Glenn Seaborg, Joseph W. Kennedy, Edwin McMillan and Arthur Wahl discovered element 94 in Berkeley in 1941. McMillan and Philip Abelson had discovered element 93 the previous year. When Martin Heinrich Klaproth isolated element 92 in pitchblende in 1789, he called it uranium after the recently discovered planet Uranus. The scientists at Berkeley named elements 93 and 94 after the planets Neptune and Pluto. The discovery of plutonium was kept secret until after the war. At Los Alamos it was called ‘49’. This did not help much since Klaus Fuchs gave all the details about the bomb to the Russians. The Germans also realised the value of element 94 for making bombs but they never could make a reactor to produce the stuff.
The Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran was founded in 1929 as a school of engineering. It became a general technological institute in 1972. It now has more than a dozen departments with thousands of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Few if any American universities have a more complete list of undergraduate physics courses. Looking at the faculty reveals an interesting split. The senior professors all did much of their degree work abroad. One of them for example was an undergraduate at Columbia. The junior faculty, including one woman, all did their degree work in Iran. In another generation, it may be that all of Iran’s physicists will have been educated in Iran. No other country in the Middle East would show a demographic like this. Taken in the large this means that Iran has a serious scientific infrastructure, which must be taken into account in any negotiations over its nuclear programme. The notion that the country can be negotiated into a scientific stone age is nonsense.
On Christmas day at 3.05 p.m. I managed to see The Interview. It was not so easy. It was playing at the Cinema Village, a pocket size three-screen theatre in Greenwich Village which specialises in obscure foreign films and other exotica. When I showed up at 2.30 all performances were sold out except the 1 a.m. but I joined the standby line and just at 3.03 managed to get in and find a seat in the very back of the theatre. There were some TV people outside both when I entered and left. What they expected I have no idea.
Stanley Kubrick’s second film, an RKO short that he made when he was 23, was called Flying Padre. It was about the Rev. Fred Stadtmueller, who flew around New Mexico tending his parishioners. Kubrick had taken flying lessons himself. I am not sure when it happened, but by the mid-Sixties he had decided never to fly in anything again. He told me that he considered it too dangerous. This meant he didn’t do much travelling and all the long-distance journeys he made – such as relocating his family to England in 1965 – he made by boat. He explained to me that the best way to transport your possessions in this kind of move was in Boy Scout foot lockers – small trunks. For his move to England he had purchased 140. Not flying posed a problem during the Cuban missile crisis. Kubrick had decided that there was a considerable chance of a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States and that his prospects would be better if he went to the Southern hemisphere. Australia seemed like a good choice so he booked a passage on a boat with his family. However, before leaving he learned that he and his wife would have to share a bathroom with a neighbouring cabin. He cancelled his booking and decided to take his chances with the atomic bomb. Not long afterwards he began working on Dr Strangelove.’
On the morning of 20 July a man identifying himself as William Kramer boarded American Airlines flight 720 from Dallas/Fort Worth to New York. He was travelling first class. His one-way ticket cost $1145.60. I know this because he used data stolen from my credit card to pay for it. I had no idea that anything was wrong – my credit card was still in my wallet – until the following morning when I checked my recent transactions online. The American Airlines payment had not yet appeared but three other charges had: for $64 and $75, on consecutive days, from Angelo’s Pizza in New York, and for $663.44 from a firm called Ritz Camera. I cancelled the card and put in a claim against these fraudulent transactions. When I called Ritz Camera, they told me that a camera had been ordered over the internet using my card details and sent by FedEx to my apartment house in New York.
Early in his career as the first Governor-General of the East India Company in Bengal, Warren Hastings instituted an annual dinner for fellow old boys of Westminster School. He paced his own...
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