#1 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 1         August 1992

Particles and Bach
Interview with Victor Weisskopf

Victor Weisskopf is a theoretical physicist who studied with Erwin Schrodinger, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli.  He worked on the Manhattan Project, was Director General of CERN, the European particle physics laboratory, and was Chairman of the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Weisskopf's autobiography is entitled The Joy of Insight (BasicBooks, New York, 1991).  

R&D Innovator:  You spent what you call your most intense years at Los Alamos, working on the Manhattan Project.  What were your motivations to join this team? 

Victor Weisskopf:  The most conscious reason was the Nazis.  If they got the bomb, obviously that would be a catastrophe.  But I do think a lot of other elements brought people to the work.  Project Director Robert Oppenheimer called it "a technically sweet task." I don't like the expression, but that's Oppenheimer's, and it reflects how many people saw the challenge.

Second, you had the opportunity to serve your country in the most interesting way, not as a soldier or officer, but as a scientist.  You didn't feel you were running away from the war, you were serving in a much better way.  There was also a certain feeling of belonging.  At the time I had been an American for only five years.  I felt a solidarity with this country, which took me in with so much grace.

Innovator:  How applicable are the lessons of the Manhattan Project to the challenge of industrial research?

Weisskopf:  You had the basic task of research and development.  At the beginning we knew a very elementary thing, that fission was real.  First, we had to demonstrate the chain reaction, and second, we had to develop it as an industrial process.

That's very typical of what industry has to do nowadays, to convert scientific results into an industrial process.   But of course it was not typical because, due to the war, we never had to think of saving money.  Our success was based on the fact that we tried things in parallel.  We thought this might be the way, or that might be the way, then used all the ways and only stopped when we proved that something did not work.  If money had been a factor, we'd have tried things in sequence instead.

Innovator:  You've said Oppenheimer taught you a great deal about the leadership of a scientific enterprise.  How did he lead the Manhattan project?

Weisskopf:  I was astonished at his effectiveness as a leader.  I knew him before the war.  He was very individualistic, he worked with only a small group of especially gifted students, and had little to do with managing large numbers of people.

Oppenheimer had a very important ability to raise enthusiasm.  People sort of "worked for him."  He always appeared when important discussions took place, when an experiment came to a critical point, even if it was 3 o'clock in the morning.  People had the feeling he was really interested in what they were doing, he was not just an administrator high up who gets financial support--he was interested in the work itself.  That I think is an extremely important trait of a successful leader.

Innovator:  How did you manage CERN, a growing institution with several thousand people?

Weisskopf:  I went to CERN, in Geneva, because it dealt with interesting physics and because it was an international venture.  It was the beginning of European collaboration between nations.  I tried to imitate Oppenheimer in my management style.  I showed my interest.  For example, twice a year I went to the workshops, even if I didn't understand what they were doing, so they had the feeling they worked for me.  It's very important that people don't just feel they work for an aim, for a goal, but that they work for a person.  If I want to be immodest, I'd say I was better than Oppenheimer because people distrusted him a bit.

Innovator:  But obviously CERN was quite different than Los Alamos.

Weisskopf:  I told people that CERN was the first common European venture, that we weren't just investigating nature, we were serving as an example of European unity.  For me that was a great thing.  I tried to bring enthusiasm to the work.  I said we had an "unusual" task, to establish something new, a European collaboration, we were not like any other enterprise.

Innovator:  You have talked about the importance of playing and listening to music in your own life.  Studies show that a large percentage of outstanding scientists, compared to most scientists, are highly interested in the arts.  Can you explain this?

Weisskopf:  I have a strange explanation.  I think you cannot live by science alone.  Science is only one way to explain the human experience, and science is very rational and somehow impersonal.  You need the warmth of art.  Scientists turn to music because it's so different.  One is very personal; the other is very impersonal.

I find that creativity in art and science are not the same.  Some say Bach fugues are like solving a mathematical problem.  I don't believe it.  A mathematical problem is objective, you can prove it wrong or right.  Now you tell me why one Bach fugue is better than another?  You can't--it's completely different.

Innovator:  You call Niels Bohr your intellectual father.  Why? 

Weisskopf:  It was because of his philosophy.  When I was his post-doc, I learned not only physics, but also philosophy, what it all really means.  He often talked about his belief that the positive spirit of the scientific endeavor would help mitigate negative aspects of technical progress.  Bohr wasn't an ivory-tower scientist.  

Bohr was interested in everything--politics, nature, arts, literature and so on--and he loved paradoxes in all of these subjects.  You find very few personalities of this kind, these days, who are impressive for the unity of their ideas.

Innovator:  Why is this?

Weisskopf:  That's a great problem, I wish I knew the solution.  Now we have many experts who understand much more than before, but they don't have the personality to bring things together.  It may have to do with hyper-specialization.  I always joke that I'd prefer to know nothing about everything, rather than everything about nothing.

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