Proving Bethe Wrong: On Theory Inspiring Experiment

As research for the work-in-progress, I recently read Luis Alvarez‘s autobiography, Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist, which contains a passage that I was reminded of last night while reading another book, that seems like an amusing follow-up to yesterday’s rant about theory and experiment. This is from the end of the chapter where he joined Ernest Lawrence’s Radiation Lab at Berkeley, and found he needed to get up to speed on a lot of physics he’d missed learning at the University of Chicago:

The other important component to my self-help program was a detailed study of three articles that appeared in the Reviews of Modern Physics in 1936 and 1937. These, by the German-born theoretician Hans Bethe and his colleagues Bob Bacher and Stan Livingston (by then moved from Berkeley to Cornell, where Bethe also taught), made up what came to be famous as Bethe’s Bible, a thorough and original reexamination of the entire corpus of nuclear physics as it was then understood. When men of wealth want to learn about a new field, they sometimes commission an expert to write a monograph on the subject especially for them. I felt that Bethe had performed just such a personal service for me; the articles seemed to have been tailored to match precisely my ability to absorb the knowledge they contained. I saw the first article in the physics library shortly after I arrived in Berkeley and sent a check to the American Physical Society for my own, personal copy of that issue of the journal. The three articles together ran to 468 pages.

Many of the experiments I performed in those days were provoked by Bethe’s conclusions. If he said a phenomenon would never be observable, I wanted to prove him wrong, which would make both of us happy. In several significant instances over the next four years, I did.

Really, that’s hard to top an an encapsulation of the mindset of an experimentalist. Alvarez went on to win the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the hydrogen bubble chamber detector used in particle physics accelerator. That’s an impressive achievement by itself, but he had a hand in a whole bunch of different things– determining the composition of cosmic rays, proving that helium-3 is stable, developing a bunch of radar technologies during WWII, and figuring out how to trigger the implosion of a plutonium bomb for the Manhattan Project. And he’s probably most famous for discovering the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous, which probably helped wipe out the dinosaurs (and which is why he’s going to be in the new book…).

Not a bad run of work…

(Bethe, to his credit, seemed amused by the quote when he mentioned it in the introductory essay he contributed to a collection of Alvarez’s papers.)

2 Replies to “Proving Bethe Wrong: On Theory Inspiring Experiment”

  1. For more information on Alvarez, look up Lawrence Johnston’s writings from the University of Idaho. Larry was Alvarez’s grad student during the war. Larry was also the only person present at all three a-bomb explosions.

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