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Julian Schwinger

January 29, 2015

As I've remarked in a few previous articles, geniuses don't think like ordinary people, but they're surprised when their conjectures aren't embraced by everyone. A recent example of this is James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA with Francis H. Crick and a recipient of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Watson has espoused some controversial opinions linking certain genetic traits with others. In 2000, as a guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, he expressed his belief that dark-skinned people have greater libido.[1]

In that same lecture, Watson said that "Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them."[1] I offer myself as a counterexample, since I'm a somewhat overweight, but supposedly productive, individual. Watson, moreover, caused a severe firestorm in 2007 when he suggested that people of African descent are not as intelligent as white people.[2-3]

Surprisingly, Watson wasn't the first Nobel laureate to conflate genetics and personality traits. In his later years, William Shockley, who shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the transistor, was an advocate of eugenics. There may have been a mitigating circumstance for Shockley's unusual behavior. Some have theorized that it may have been the result of a brain injury from a 1961 automobile accident. Shockley had even become estranged from his children, who only learned of his death in 1989 from news reports.

William Shockley in 1975.William Shockley in 1975.

(Stanford News Service photo by Chuck Painter, via Wikimedia Commons.)

These are extreme examples, but a Nobel Laureate need not stray that far from his science to get into trouble. One thing that physicists are known for is their belief that proper application of physics can revolutionize any field of science, and they're surprised when their advice is not accepted. Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory is like that.

Julian Schwinger (1918-1994) was a preeminent theoretical physicist. He shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics with Richard Feynman and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga "for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics (QED), with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles."[4] In his final years, Schwinger became interested in cold fusion, a controversial topic that I discussed in a previous article (Martin Fleischmann, August 10, 2012).

Schwinger decided to use his knowledge of elementary particle physics to devise some hypothetical ways in which cold fusion might be possible, so that they could be tested by experiment. He was not allowed to publish his hypotheses in the usual venues, such as Physical Review Letters, so he thought that cold fusion research was being suppressed for being non-conventional. Schwinger resigned from the American Physical Society, publisher of the scientific journals that rejected his papers.

That happened more than two decades ago. Although the proponents of cold fusion are still claiming positive results, cold fusion has still not been unequivocally demonstrated to the satisfaction of its critics. Still, we shouldn't let this detract from Schwinger's other accomplishments. Edward Gerjuoy, an emeritus professor of physics of the University of Pittsburgh, has just published a lengthy memoir of Schwinger on arXiv.[6]

Julian SchwingerJulian Schwinger in 1965, the year in which I graduated from high school.

Schwinger received his Ph.D. from Columbia University at the youthful age of twenty-one. His thesis advisor was I.I. Rabi.

(Nobel Foundation photograph, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Julian Schwinger was born in New York City, to Orthodox Jewish parents. He briefly attended the City College of New York, eventually getting a bachelor's degree from Columbia University in 1936. As Gerjuoy recalls, the transfer to Columbia was necessitated by Schwinger's proclivity for skipping class and only taking exams.[6] I.I. Rabi, who was impressed by Schwinger's knowledge, was instrumental in bringing Schwinger to Columbia. Rabi, as quoted by Gerjuoy, wrote,
"I... got a transcript from City College, and took it to one of the officials—I forget who it was. Now what about a fellowship, scholarship for this guy? He looked at the transcript and said, on the basis of this we wouldn't admit him. I [then] said something very tactless—I said, suppose he were a football player...Still the problem remained...[but] I just simply overrode them and he was admitted."[6]

Schwinger remained at Columbia, getting a Ph.D. in 1939, at the age of twenty-one, under Rabi. It's been said that the work for his Ph.D. thesis was actually completed three years prior to this![6] He worked for J. Robert Oppenheimer as a National Research Fellow and postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, from graduation through the time of his first academic appointment, as an Instructor at Purdue University in 1941.[7] Oppenheimer had a reputation for ruthlessly asking pointed questions of his students when they were seminar speakers. Gerjuoy writes that Schwinger had no trouble answering Oppenheimer's questions.[6]

During World War II, Schwinger worked, not at Oppenheimer's Los Alamos Laboratory, but on radar at the MIT Radiation Laboratory. Gerjuoy writes that Schwinger didn't go to Los Alamos because he feared that Oppenheimer would try to dominate him.[6] After the war, Schwinger taught at Harvard University from 1945 to 1974, first as an associate professor, then as a full professor.[7] The mathematics that he used in his radar work were supposedly a crucial factor that led to his renormalization calculation of the electron magnetic moment in quantum electrodynamics.

It's been suggested that Schwinger anticipated the existence of more than one type of neutrino.[10] One of Schwinger's students, Fritz Rohrlich, was a professor at Syracuse University while I was a student there. Among Schwinger's more than seventy doctoral students are four Nobel Laureates, Ben Mottelson, Sheldon Glashow, Roy Glauber and Walter Kohn.

In his arXiv paper, Gerjuoy bemoans the fact that Richard Feynman has had more fame than Schwinger, and he gives many interesting insights into Schwinger's career. Gerjuoy writes that Schwinger essentially learned physics on his own, primarily from books at the public library.[7] At age seventeen, Schwinger co-authored two Letters to the Editor of the Physical Review.[8-9]

One thing that Schwinger had in common with me is that he liked to work late at night while others are asleep.[7] I do this this since I'm too easily distracted by noise, and that was perhaps Schwinger's motivation as well. This work habit of Schwinger began during his undergraduate years, and it was probably the reason he was chronically absent from the classroom.


  1. Tom Abate, "Nobel Winner's Theories Raise Uproar in Berkeley," San Francisco Chronicle, November 13, 2000.
  2. Alexis Madrigal, "Watson Rediscovers 1940s Attitudes Towards Race' (Wired News, October 17, 2007).
  3. Adam Rutherford, "He may have unravelled DNA, but James Watson deserves to be shunned," The Guardian (UK), December 1, 2014.
  4. The Nobel Prize in Physics 1965, The Nobel Foundation Web Site.
  5. Julian Schwinger, "Cold Fusion Theory: A Brief History of Mine," Fourth International Conference on Cold Fusion (ICCF4, Maui, Hawaii, December 1994), via Infinite Energy Magazine.
  6. Edward Gerjuoy, "Memories of Julian Schwinger," arXiv, December 2, 2014
  7. Julian Schwinger - Biographical, The Nobel Foundation Web Site.
  8. O. Halpern and J. Schwinger, "On the polarization of electrons by double scattering," Phys. Rev., vol. 48, no. 1 July 1, 1935), p. 109, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRev.48.109.
  9. Lloyd Motz and Julian Schwinger, "On the β-radioactivity of neutrons," Phys. Rev., vol. 48, no. 8 (October 15, 1935), p. 704, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRev.48.704.2
  10. Jagdish Mehra and Kimball A. Milton, "Climbing the Mountain: The Scientific Biography of Julian Schwinger," Oxford University Press, Aug 14, 2003, p. 425.

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