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essay turning points

A meeting with Enrico Fermi


How one intuitive physicist rescued a team from fruitless research.
physical picture, and the forces are

UNIV. CHICAGO/AIP EMILIO SEGRÈ VISUAL ARCHIVES


Freeman Dyson
so strong that nothing converges. To

O
ne of the big turning points reach your calculated results, you had
in my life was a meeting with to introduce arbitrary cut-off proce-
Enrico Fermi in the spring of dures that are not based either on solid
1953. In a few minutes, Fermi politely physics or on solid mathematics.”
but ruthlessly demolished a programme In desperation I asked Fermi whether
of research that my students and I had he was not impressed by the agreement
been pursuing for several years. He between our calculated numbers and his
probably saved us from several more measured numbers. He replied, “How
years of fruitless wandering along a road many arbitrary parameters did you use
that was leading nowhere. I am eternally for your calculations?” I thought for a
grateful to him for destroying our moment about our cut-off procedures
illusions and telling us the bitter truth. and said, “Four.” He said, “I remember
Fermi was one of the great physicists my friend Johnny von Neumann used to
of our time, outstanding both as a say, with four parameters I can fit an
theorist and as an experimenter. He elephant, and with five I can make him
led the team that built the first nuclear wiggle his trunk.” With that, the conver-
reactor in Chicago in 1942. By 1953 sation was over. I thanked Fermi for his
he was head of the team that built time and trouble,and sadly took the next
the Chicago cyclotron, and was using bus back to Ithaca to tell the bad news
it to explore the strong forces that to the students.Because it was important
hold nuclei together. He made the for the students to have their names on
first accurate measurements of the a published paper, we did not abandon
scattering of mesons by protons, an our calculations immediately. We
experiment that gave the most direct finished them and

HEKA DAVIS PHOTO/AIP EMILIO SEGRÈ VISUAL ARCHIVES


evidence then available of the nature of wrote a long paper
the strong forces . that was duly pub-
At that time I was a young professor lished in the Physi-
of theoretical physics at Cornell Univer- cal Review with all
sity, responsible for directing the Crossed paths: A discussion with Enrico our names on it.
research of a small army of graduate Fermi (above) made Freeman Dyson Then we dispersed
students and postdocs. I had put them (right) change his career direction. to find other lines of
to work calculating meson–proton scat- work. I escaped to
tering, so that their theoretical calculations a package of our theoretical Berkeley, California,
could be compared with Fermi’s measure- graphs to show to Fermi. to start a new career
ments. In 1948 and 1949 we had made When I arrived in Fermi’s in condensed-matter
similar calculations of atomic processes,using office, I handed the graphs to physics.
the theory of quantum electrodynamics,and Fermi, but he hardly glanced Looking back after
found spectacular agreement between experi- at them. He invited me to sit fifty years, we can
ment and theory.Quantum electrodynamics down, and asked me in a clearly see that Fermi
is the theory of electrons and photons friendly way about the health was right. The crucial
interacting through electromagnetic forces. of my wife and our new- discovery that made
Because the electromagnetic forces are weak, born baby son, now fifty sense of the strong
we could calculate the atomic processes years old. Then he delivered forces was the quark.
precisely. By 1951, we had triumphantly his verdict in a quiet, even voice. “There are Mesons and protons are
finished the atomic calculations and were two ways of doing calculations in theoretical little bags of quarks. Before Murray Gell-
looking for fresh fields to conquer. We physics”, he said. “One way, and this is the Mann discovered quarks, no theory of the
decided to use the same techniques of calcu- way I prefer, is to have a clear physical picture strong forces could possibly have been
lation to explore the strong nuclear forces. of the process that you are calculating. The adequate. Fermi knew nothing about quarks,
We began by calculating meson–proton other way is to have a precise and self- and died before they were discovered. But
scattering, using a theory of the strong forces consistent mathematical formalism. You somehow he knew that something essential
known as pseudoscalar meson theory. By the have neither.” I was slightly stunned, but was missing in the meson theories of
spring of 1953, after heroic efforts, we had ventured to ask him why he did not consider the 1950s. His physical intuition told him
plotted theoretical graphs of meson–proton the pseudoscalar meson theory to be a self- that the pseudoscalar meson theory could
scattering.We joyfully observed that our consistent mathematical formalism. He not be right. And so it was Fermi’s intuition,
calculated numbers agreed pretty well with replied, “Quantum electrodynamics is a and not any discrepancy between theory and
Fermi’s measured numbers. So I made good theory because the forces are weak, experiment, that saved me and my students
an appointment to meet with Fermi and and when the formalism is ambiguous we from getting stuck in a blind alley. ■
show him our results. Proudly, I rode the have a clear physical picture to guide us.With Freeman Dyson is at the Institute for Advanced Study,
Greyhound bus from Ithaca to Chicago with the pseudoscalar meson theory there is no Einstein Drive, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA.

NATURE | VOL 427 | 22 JANUARY 2004 | www.nature.com/nature 297


©2004 Nature Publishing Group

©2004 Nature Publishing Group