Letter to Physics Today

Fermi and Teller

Former Student Remembers Teller and Fermi with Gratitude


Edward Teller's science activities while at the University of Chicago are described in Physics Today, August 2004, page 45.  A similar article was published some time earlier (Physics Today, June 2002, page 38) concerning how effective Enrico Fermi was as a science adviser, saving some researchers much time by telling them ways to improve their approach to the problem they were working on.  Neither article mentions the interactions these great men had with those of us who were graduate students there at the time.

Teller was approachable by students, but he was also very busy.  A student might find someone at the blackboard doing a problem under Teller's watchful eye while Teller was also talking to a US Army major from some Department of Energy group seeking advice on a weapons issue.  But the most striking help we got was indirect.  Those of us taking a class with Maria Goeppert Mayer heard her advice on how to go about solving a real problem, as opposed to a class problem.  She said, Save yourself time by asking Teller to guess the answer.  He has such great physical instincts he can guess the answer within a few percent and thereby give you a running start.

Fermi was a hero to us when, during a visit to Los Alamos, he used the rudimentary computer recently installed there to show how previously unsolvable science problems could be solved.  When he returned to the University of Chicago physics department after that very productive visit, he posted a notice to the students saying that he believed that the computer would become an essential tool for future physicists.  So he proposed to teach a course in programming over several evenings, and he urged the graduate students to attend.

The course was in machine language, of course—a tedious and soon-to-be-abandoned process as higher languages were devised—but it clearly demonstrated the basics of how computers calculated and gave us each a head start on understanding how to use this new device, which indeed soon became essential, just as he had forecast.  For a Nobel laureate to offer us that help seemed noble indeed.

On a later occasion, the chairman of the physics department told me that his job was very difficult.  The staff consisted of mostly famous scientists, all of whom had active research projects under way; each pleaded not to be asked to teach during the coming term.  Fermi, the exception, would wander into the chairman's office and say something like, I need to ask you a favor.  I am a bit weak in my solid-state physics just now; may I teach it this fall?

Fermi's name is well established as a scientist of tremendous creativity and mathematical skill, but to a smaller group he bequeathed an example of life conducted generously and with grace.

John Firor
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colorado


letter from Physics Today, Vol 52 #2, Feb. 2005, p. 10


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created 2/5/2005
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