Wednesday, May 2, 2012

a research student's letter to his parents

Sir Nevill Mott's letter to his parents dated October 1928

Nevill Mott was an English physicist.
For those not acquainted with Physics, loosely speaking, Bohr (Niels Bohr) was a super-fantastic scientist.

This is a letter that Nevill Mott wrote to his parents when he was a research student under Niels Bohr.

To me this is not about Nevill Mott, or Bohr or Physics. To me this is about the beautiful experience that research can be; the environment of research and then the pleasure of fascination distilled into the last two sentences. It is also about the sweet vulnerability of a student and his reverence for his teacher.

Yesterday at four o' clock Bohr said, "come across to my house and discuss the little bit of work you have just done, and a bit of work rather similar of someone else's"; Bohr lives opposite the Institute. And at six it was supper time, and Bohr said stay for supper, and I had supper with him and his wife, and we talked about sculpture. And then after supper we went on discussing, and it became more and more Bohr and less and less me. And by about 9 we had got about as far with the problem as seemed possible without further calculations, and so Bohr began to talk about the Philosophy of the Quantum theory and how it was all bound up with the impossibility of man's knowing himself, and his not being able to know the external world completely because he himself was a part of the external world. And then back to the Quantum theory and the outstanding problems again. And about eleven we said good night.

It is incredibly nice of him, isn't it, to give individual students his attention.

He has got a brain. When he has a new idea - he had this morning - he comes into the Institute and tells it to the first person he can find; today that was me.

Extraordinary what a difference it makes to life in general if one's work is going well. When I got messed up in that beastly arithmetic, and the thing gave an answer that didn't agree with Rutherford's experiments, one felt that one was stupid, would never do any good at this game, consequently rather overworked, and got dreadfully fed up and wondered if I'd better not come home and get a job like (my cousin) Johnny Simmonds. But now all goes well.

I like the life here where half one's work is discussing. That's the great point of Copenhangen I believe - though its probably the same in Germany too. Only Bohr knows everything that's been done and has a marvellous knack of finding the sense behind mathematics.

Bohr is the kind of man who can tell one that one is talking nonsense, without hurting - I don't think one can say more than that, do you?

And he has his students alone in the evening to talk, and then walks home with them, telling how he discovered his theory of spectra.

And then its 1 a.m. perhaps.

But it is funny that the spin of the electron can never be observed, isn't it? Perhaps the spin is only an illusion.

~ from The Making of Physicists. edited by Rajkumari Williamson

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