from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 1
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?
The most conscious reason was the Nazis.
If they got the bomb, obviously that would be a
But I do think a lot of other elements brought people to
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Bohr wasn't an ivory-tower scientist.
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
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.