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On the passing of Maurice Goldhaber

May 23, 2011

I read today that Maurice Goldhaber, one of the giants of 20th Century Physics, passed away. Goldhaber helped to measure the mass of the neutron, worked on the Manhattan project, and later went on to help develop the standard model of particle physics, and went on direct Brookhaven National lab for more than a dozen years.

Back in my undergrad days I had an opportunity to meet Professor Goldhaber. My quantum mechanics professor said this really famous physicist was visiting, and wondered if any students would be interested in having dinner with him. The following week, about 4 other majors and myself got to eat lunch with Professor Goldhaber in the faculty commons (which in itself was a treat).

I remember being completely enthralled by his stories of knowing so many famous physicists personally—Feynman, Oppenheimer, Schrodinger, Bohr, Chadwick, and on and on. It was most interesting to hear him describe the confusion and sense of wonder he and his colleagues felt in discovering the underpinnings of quantum mechanics, and suddenly, all the confusion I had with the subject seemed a bit more manageable.

I also remember one particular anecdote from our conversation. My roommate, a physics/German major had just finished reading some newly discovered interview or paper by Heinsberg claiming that he had intentionally sabotaged and delayed the Nazi efforts to build an atomic bomb since he knew that Hitler could not be trusted with such a terrible weapon. My roommate asked Dr. Goldhaber what he thought of this story, and Dr. Goldhaber replied that he remembered reading a paper by Heisenberg where he had miscalculated the scattering cross section in a particular nuclear interaction by a factor of two, and Goldhaber then exclaimed, “and, right then, I said Heisenberg will never be able to build a bomb.” I wish I could remember the details of this story more—I’m sure I’ve botched the physics in my retelling. Still, I remember being so fascinated to hear a first hand perspective on such a pivotal historical moment.

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