Many years ago I read an interview with a physics professor, where he recounted a funny situation when he was a graduate student at Harvard.

When a first year, he was supposed to take the quantum mechanics course, but he could not stand the lecture and begged to be able to defer it for a year, hoping he'd get a better lecturer next year, and somehow he got his request approved. This left him with an open slot, however, so he, not knowing much about quantum mechanics, ended up taking a quantum field theory course, because he had heard that the lecturer, Julian Schwinger, was very good.

When the time came for oral exams, each student chose the topic they would be interviewed on. The student chose electromagnetism, but most of the others chose quantum mechanics, so when due to some mix-up the examiners began asking him questions on quantum mechanics, and he answered them using his knowledge from taking quantum field theory. Eventually the examiners realized their mistake, asked him to write Maxwell's equations in differential form, which he did, and then passed him and encouraged him to go into theory.

For the life of me, I cannot remember who this physics professor was. I do remember that he mentioned that Wendall Furry was one of his examiners though.

This is basically my desperate hope that someone out there has read that interview too and can dig it up again.


1 Answer 1


H.E. Stanley's 2002 interview has Harvard, taking quantum field theory ahead of quantum mechanics, Schwinger and a tough lecturer (Coleman), Wendell Furry, the electromagnetism course, and an exam. But the anecdotal details do not match up: Coleman discouraged him from going into QFT (he encouraged Jeff Mandula instead), the exam was take home, Furry was not the examiner, and there were no Maxwell's equations in differential form. So perhaps it was not Stanley but Jeff Mandula, or some other Harvard student from 1950s. American Institute of Physics conducted a number of interviews with physicists who studied at Harvard around that time, see e.g. Anderson's, Layzer's and Schlihter's, but I could not find anything closer to your story than Stanley's. Here are the relevant passages:

I made a lot of mistakes when I came because I lost a year on the Fulbright. I thought I could place out of some courses and Harvard is a little bit relaxed on how they do things. They don't force you to do much, and therefore I did not take a course in say quantum mechanics, because I went to take the [Julian] Schwinger's lecture on field theory and [Sidney] Coleman taught it also, and the bottom line is that I created holes in my physics education which I then was never able to fill because I never had the time to sort of go back and learn a lot of these things. So, it's made me a good teacher, because I tell students not to do this."

"Yeah, yeah I did take Coleman's course and that's why I got out of field theory, I think that when I entered Harvard I wanted to be a Schwinger student.... In Germany I dreamed of Schwinger: he was a big monstrous guy but when I met him he was a short guy. So I took a reading course like so many students did the first semester, and had the exactly the same experience that everyone had of meeting him: once in the fall you saw him to sign a card and at which time he told me to come back in January at the end of the semester with the term paper. Which I did."

"So that didn't help me make a decision, but Coleman's course did, because Coleman's course was very hard... In particular, he gave a take home exam which was so tough that no one in the entire class could do it and you had 4-5 days. Except, the day before it was due Jeff Mandula said 'I can solve it,' and everyone didn't know if he was bluffing but he could, so Jeff got an A, the rest of us got B's and, basically, the message from Coleman was you shouldn't think of field theory if you couldn't get an A. Jeff Mandula could think of it if he wanted to and most of us really should not and I took that lesson to heart."

"At Lincoln Lab. John van Vleck taught a very nice course in magnetism, which I took. And taught it in a way which is also valuable to historians. His way of teaching is a way that I've never been able to quite teach but I've always wanted to. He would come in as if he were totally unprepared, you know and everyone would wonder whether he was or not, and he would say 'Today we're supposed to talk about paramagnetism and does anybody know about paramagnetism?' And we would say, 'yeah the spins don't interact.'"

"No he [Wendell Furry] then ... he didn't teach graduate courses. And he was regarded as a man who had fallen afoul of the [Joseph] McCarthy people..."


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