Edwin Salpeter interviewed by Mark Turin 12th November 2008


0:09:07 Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1924 but spent much of my first five years in Budapest; that was a time when there was a lot of communication between Austria and Hungary although it was no longer the Austro-Hungarian Empire; my father went to work in Budapest for five years; I have no memory of that time; a few years later we did go back to Hungary and I managed to pick up Hungarian more quickly than other people; the one thing I accomplished was learning how to swim; immediately after taking his PhD my father was academically inclined and even wrote a textbook on mathematical methods for physicists and medical doctors; it became clear that there was too much anti-Semitism to become an academic; industry was much more open-minded; mother had got her PhD in physics but gave up working as soon as I was born, a year and a half after their marriage; she did give occasional lessons; in physics, my father did something on radio activity, on how it affected currents in what otherwise would be insulators; Schrödinger, at the same university, was working on highly isolated insulators; my father's radio activity almost did some trouble to Schrödinger's experiments, but they managed to work it out


5:07:00 In Vienna we lived opposite a workers' apartments; when I was about twelve there was a civil war being fought opposite, with my mother trying to keep me away from the window; for a Jew is was not a pleasant place to be; they thought of themselves as Austrians first and were well assimilated; there were not strong Jewish communities; I had Jewish friends because even at that stage you had more friends of your own persuasion; there was some controversy between my mother and me over schooling; when I was about ten and had finished elementary school, one had to do an exam to get into the gymnasium; to anything worthwhile you needed a gymnasium education; I failed the entrance exam; my mother said the authorities were all anti-Semitic; my theory was that she was partly right, but I had been reading a wild west story instead of preparing for it; my father's name was Jakob Leib; it was a custom that even if you were not a very religious Jew that you would take a Jewish middle name - Leib means lion; mother's name was Freiderika, maiden name Horn; I never met any of my father's relatives; he had come from Galicia and had left to study in Vienna; his Galician relatives never visited Vienna; a relative, a bit older than me, did keep in touch; learnt they were all murdered, many by the local Poles who were at that time in charge of Galicia, and the remainder by the Nazis; I lived in an apartment within an apartment house which was owned jointly by my mother and her mother; my maternal grandfather died before I was born though I do remember stories about him; we even have a photograph of him proudly driving a car when my mother was about eight; he was an electrical engineer and was very proud of being assimilated; there was once a tiger that had escaped from a travelling show and he shot it; my mother as a girl travelled a lot as, especially in summer, he would go to build electric railroads, converting funiculars and other railways to run on electricity


13:08:10 My mother had really wanted to study medicine but the authorities at the university decided that there was money in medicine so it was useful and important, so she could not study it; physics was seen as useless so they did not mind her studying that; for me personally, the most interesting thing was my attitude towards areas of endeavour and school; we had lived in a very non-intellectual suburb and I was in a school that wasn't in any way selective, so I was top of my class in all subjects but had no thoughts about my future; I have a half-sister; my father had previously married a Catholic woman whom he had made pregnant; he intended to divorce her immediately after, but had gone to the extent of becoming a Catholic for the marriage; my sister was named Maria Christina to emphasise her Catholic parentage; this was because her mother already feared that they might have to pretend that she was fully non-Jewish; when the War happened they emigrated from Vienna to Waldkirch, a little town on the border between Austria, Lichtenstein and Switzerland just in case anyone remembered the link to my father; they survived the War but did not return to Vienna; my sister married a Swiss businessman but lived with them in Waldkirch; she shares my surname, the German form of saltpetre - sodium nitrate; when I was in college in Sydney I got very interested in chemistry and almost switched from physics; have had almost as many papers published in chemical journals as in physics [though he comments here that he "had almost as many papers published in chemistry journals" is clearly linked to the time he had just been discussing not to his life, for certainly he had hundreds of astrophysical papers to his

name. For years he was putting out six or eight major papers a year]

; did continue to meet my sister often as a child but my parents did not have another child; things looked pretty bad when they might have done so


20:48:00 My father specialised in running incandescent lamp factories; there was a big cartel run mainly by Phillips Electrical Industries, but he started with one of the outsider firms so he had patent fights etc.; when we were trying to get out of Austria - at first he thought that it wouldn't happen, but after Kristallnacht (1938) he became interested in finding a job elsewhere and emigrating; luckily for him there was in Sydney, Australia, a manufacturer of glass, including the glass for light bulbs; he used to sell light bulbs to Phillips but they claimed his bulbs were getting too expensive so they threatened to make their own; they needed somebody to be boss of their factory and my father was clearly the man; the raw materials were not there in Australia so we went via London in about January 1939, my father having gone before us, where we stayed for about two months; when I started in Australia I did not know much English but I already had an English accent; for a few weeks of the time in London I was in a boarding school; we could not have gone to the US at that time as America was anti-refugees and would not have given us visas; my father had looked at other places, such as Rumania, for a job; after Kristallnacht my mother and I were kicked out of our apartment with just one suitcase each; for leaving Austria, all we could take with us was the same one suitcase; my mother managed to get together some of the more important things in the house and hire a shipping contractor to send it on to Sydney; these things take time but the enormous crate, sent by a German shipping company, arrived in Sydney after the War had started; there were no restrictions on us taking the contents; when we were evicted my grandmother was sent to Theresienstadt and murdered there


28:28:23 For a teenager, Australia was just an ideal country to grow up in; it is an outdoor country so you could spend your time bushwalking in the Blue Mountains; the new language led to me getting through quicker; the timing of high school years was different; somehow it looked to the authorities that they should put me into fourth grade even though I had in fact been in the equivalent of second grade; they could not test me on the subject matter as I knew almost no English; they let me study on my own for a year or so and I managed to learn enough to get on; the school was certainly welcoming and so were most Australians; my parents may not have felt as much at home as I did, but they seemed pretty much so; I think that they felt it was a final move for them; my father had a nice industrial base; it turned out for some reason that quite a few years later he switched to working for Phillips itself; it was certainly more difficult for my parents; they did relate to other refugees, not necessarily Jewish ones alone; they were not engaged politically during the interwar years; I became more so with student societies where I was a member of a couple which were slightly socialist; I was one of the founding members of the Sydney University Bushwalking Club, and that took a lot of time; also played a bit of tennis and swimming; at that time there was just one university in Sydney so I had no choice; in Vienna I had been top of my class but in September 1938 there was just one Jewish school; only 10-20% of Jewish children were able to go there and it was academically selective; I found suddenly that I was no longer top of the class in all subjects; some of the children beat me, some of them girls; I had never been in a school with girls so it was a strange experience; at that time, although life was pretty tough, I put the possibility of surviving to adulthood reasonably low; that was just when I started thinking of what I would do; I got some support from my parents although we had similar ideas; once we were in Australia my mother did a few tutorials but did not work full time; hard to tell if she regretted this; she was not all that academically minded despite the difficulty and trouble she had gone to get a PhD


38:03:17 When I found that I was not top of the class except in maths and science, it was those that I thought I should follow; physics was what I happened to like best quite apart from it being also what my parents did; the Sydney department was somewhat mixed at the time; many of them were a little bit stodgy but some were really very good; one man called Victor Bailey really did important research in electricity and gases in what now would be called plasma physics; it was a good place in general; for the four years that I was at the University there were not yet many European professors; my interest in astronomy is complicated; there was a man at Caltech, at the Kellogg Radiation Lab., a nuclear experimentalist, Willie Fowler; he knew he wanted to build up an interest in nuclear astrophysics; he invited me to come for a summer in 1951; at that time I didn't know about nuclear astrophysics but I was a little bit of an expert in nuclear physics; when I came to Caltech Willie Fowler told me of an important topic, namely how you go from helium nuclei to heavier nuclei in evolved stars; you certainly can't in main sequence stars - they are only about 10,000,000o in the centre, maybe something else would do it; it soon became clear that there were giant stars although their surfaces were pretty low temperature because they have a very large radius, have quite hot interiors; at that time one didn't know too much about the structure of stars, but qualitatively we knew that was it; clearly the way to go from helium to heavier elements would be to first go to carbon – that’s helium-4 to carbon-12, just three of those together would do that - but the question was in detail how do you do it; having a triple collision is just not very easy; luckily I already knew that the in-between thing, beryllium-8 which would be two helium nuclei instead of the three in carbon isn't stable, that is why you needed to do the triple alpha eventually; it turned out that it was almost stable, that you needed some energy to go from two heliums to this resonant state in beryllium-8 which would then decay back again; at any rate there was this equilibrium and then you can easily add another alpha particle to the beryllium-8; that was a very easy way to get a lot of energy out of that reaction; I then made some mistakes in that as well, but unless you are interested in Fred Hoyle I won't go into that


44:47:20 At the end of my undergraduate work at Sydney I had got interested in quantum electrodynamics; there wasn't much work on this in Australia but it was a red hot topic in England and the USA; what I did for a masters degree was a pedagogical review on that which got me a fellowship given by the Commission for the Exhibition of 1851; it was a prestigious fellowship which you could take anywhere in England, which I wanted to do anyway; I then had my first big dilemma; I could have gone to Cambridge were Paul Dirac was, an a much more prestigious place than a red brick university, but the few people who really knew advised me correctly that although Dirac was a great man he would be a lousy thesis advisor; at that time the best graduate school in theoretical physics in general was Rudy Peierls in Birmingham; I am glad that in spite of the many voices the other way I listened to the few voices who said I should go there; I did, and it was indeed the best; Oxford and London were somewhat similar to Cambridge, not quite as prestigious because they did not have Dirac; I got to know him while I was still a graduate student in Birmingham; I used to make pilgrimages to Cambridge to see him, also I became friendly with the three people who invented steady state cosmology, Fred Hoyle, Hermann Bondi and Tommy Gold, so I knew them before I had got my PhD; Birmingham was the right choice; it is very different to have the right person to be a thesis advisor rather than just having excellent people of whom you ask questions; there is no doubt that Rudy Peierls was by far the best; he had a fairly big house and after the first year I actually lived with him; his wife was the daughter of a Russian General and was also my landlady and the "mother" of the Department; Peierls was especially great for somebody like me who wanted to be a generalist because he worked on many different fields inside theoretical physics; of course quantum astrodynamics, which I was doing, but also statistical physics, solid state physics etc.; each graduate student not only had a different topic but these many different areas; he also grew up in a Jewish family in Germany; we did not speak in German together; for a great supervisor, it helps to work in many different fields, but the more important thing may be that in each field he had a number of different specific topics and you could choose which one; the really important thing is that a good thesis advisor knows how to draw the line between giving you detailed advice, on the one hand, and letting you work on your own with just an occasional remark, on the other; Peierls did that really well; he was involved in the Manhattan project and arranged for Klaus Fuchs to also join it; Fuchs was found to be a spy while I was still with the Peierls' in Birmingham; that was a very big shock; it is not quite clear whether I took two years or three to finish my PhD, in the sense that I had it finished in two years but I wanted to stay another year in Birmingham; in the English system, unlike here, you specialize more as an undergraduate so you do your PhD work much faster; there was not much in the way of graduate courses, at least it didn't mean much to you; it is a pity because there were some quite good mathematics teachers in Birmingham whose courses I could have gone to, but didn't; interestingly enough I don't even remember the title of my PhD and furthermore I didn't even put it in my references in my autobiography; not that it was wrong - it had to do with the self-energy of the electron which I took seriously, but started with a finite radius for the electron and then went to zero and did that all very vigorously; I did that OK but what I didn't do and should have done and was done by other people, is what is called renormalization theory; what you are really interested in is how a free electron differs from an electron in an atom; in particular there was just after I did my thesis the experimental discovery of what is called the Lamb shift, showing that two levels according to the Dirac theory should have the same energy or slightly different ones; my thesis topic was such that I could easily invented that, but I didn't even think of it; I had chosen the topic myself; at that time I thought that doing rigorous things were important or elegant, so I chose it from others that Peierls suggested


Edwin Salpeter died 26th November 2008


An oral transcript of an interview with Edwin E. Salpeter by Spencer R. Weart at the Newman Laboratory, Cornell University, 30 March 1978 is on the Niels Bohr Library and Archives site at http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/4854.html