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Search for Simplicity - Weisskopf
A column in the American Journal of Physics.

Search for Simplicity
Weisskopf, Victor F.
A column in the American Journal of Physics.
Dec 1984 - Feb 1986 (or more?).

"I intend in these essays to present simple explanations for the nature and magnitude of important properties of matter. The emphasis will be, as far as possible, on simplicity and physical insight. One of the main aims is to show how our understanding of phenomena is based upon a few simple consequences of quantum mechanics. This understanding will enable us to express some of the relevant quantities encountered in Nature approximately in terms of simple combinations of the following fundamental constants:
Newton's gravitational constantG
The mass of the protonM
The mass of the electronm
The electric charge unite
Planck's quantum of actionh
The velocity of lightc

In these essays I shall deal with quantities such as the size and energy of atoms, the binding energy of atoms in molecules and solids, the density and hardness of solids, the conductivity of metals, the thermal expansion of solids, the height of mountains on Earth, the brightness of the sun, and other similar magnitudes." [Weisskopf,quoted in Ridgen, v52n12]


In the Editor's introduction to the upcoming column, Rigden writes:

"[...] throughout the 1950's [...] the course in quantum mechanics given by Julian Schwinger at Harvard University was famous. [...] Everyone in attendance were aware that they were observing a virtuoso in action [...]. Schwinger's course was formal and mathematically elegant. It was a challenge of monumental proportions for the student comming to the subject for the first time.

For a brisk walker, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is 20 minutes down Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard. Victor Weisskopf taught quantum mechanics at MIT during the '50's and students would often complement Schwinger's course with the experience of sitting in on Weisskopf's. Viki's course was, of necessity, mathematical, but there was a simple naturalness about it - it was quantum mechanics in plain words.

Weisskopf learned from Ehrenfest to approach the complex mathematical formalisms of physics with a degree of skepticism. "Ehrenfest," says Weisskopf, "showed me how to get at the real physics, how to distinguish between physics and formalism, how to get at the depth of things He used to say, `Physics is simple, but subtle.'" [...]

[...] Hans Bethe [...] describes some of his writings on the subject of quantum mechanics [...] "I don't know any other place," writes Bethe, "where the essential solidity of our world as governed by quantum theory is better explained, or the great richness of the phenomena caused by quantitative differences is shown with greater love." "[Rigden, v52n12, p1073]

"One of his colleagues has spoken of him as possessing the Copenhagen spirit, the Niels Bohr-like capacity so thoroughly to understand a complex scientific problem, that he could achieve an illuminating simplicity in presenting it or discussing it with all of us." [James Killian [1]]

"With his characteristic attention to directly visualizable approaches to physical phenomena, he has dealt with this in terms of rather specific models, attempting then to give very elementary explanations of these facinating phenomena." [Julian Schwinger [2]]
(I include this to give a flavor for Weisskopf's approach... and because I may need the quote later...:)


An interview with Weisskopf.


I am not sure the column entirely lives up to the pre-billing above.

[1] James Killian (MIT), Introductory Remarks, "Physics and Our World: A Symposium in Honor of Victor F. Weisskopf", MIT 1974; on page 1 in AIP Conference Proceedings No. 28, 1976.
[2] Julian Schwinger (UCLA), same as above, on page 23.

A View from the Back of the Envelope
Comments encouraged. - Mitchell N Charity <mcharity@lcs.mit.edu>

  Spin off a Weisskopf page?

 1998.Apr.05   Added Killian and Schwinger quotes.
 long ago      Created.