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Edward Gerjuoy’s Interview

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Edward Gerjuoy was a graduate student of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s at Berkeley. He went on to become an eminent scholar of atomic physics and a Professor of Physics at the University of Pittsburgh. In this interview, Gerjuoy discusses his relationship with Oppenheimer, how he felt about Oppenheimer from a student’s perspective, and why he did not go to Los Alamos or participate in the Manhattan Project.

Date of Interview:
April 13, 2008
Location of the Interview:


Ed Gerjuoy: My name is Edward Gerjuoy, G-E-R-J-U-O-Y. I’m presently a retired Professor of Physics Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.

I think I should begin by telling you how I came to go to Berkeley and to Oppenheimer. I graduated from City College in 1937 and actually looked for a job, didn’t want to go back to graduate school. It was the midst of the Depression; I could not find a job. So I asked my most favorite professor at City College, whose name was Zemanski, Mark Zemanski, I asked him where I should go to learn modern physics. He answered without hesitation that the best school was in Berkeley and Professor Oppenheimer. That was the first time I had ever heard of his name. And since it was as far as home, New York, as I possibly could go, there was no question, and out I went.

So I got to Berkeley and my first semester was actually a course, an introduction to quantum mechanics, by Oppenheimer. That was his first course, from him. It was really a revelation. It was so different from the kind of teaching that I used to get at City College. City College had the most marvelous student body. They were just miles above – I mean, SATs, they’d average a hundred points above anywhere else. But the faculty was something else again, it was really terrible. Except for Zemanski and one or two others, there really were no people there whom you could respect.

So off Oppenheimer went and he was teaching elementary quantum mechanics, which I had known nothing about really because it was, in those days, sort of hardly begun. People didn’t know about it. That’s when I started. Then, I took another course from him. The next semester, I took the second half of electromagnetic theory from Oppenheimer. And then I took his more advanced course in quantum mechanics. That’s how we went, that’s how I got into it.

As far as working with Oppenheimer was concerned, after I’d been there about a year, I approached Oppenheimer and told him I would like to work with him. He says, “Well,” he says, “Just come to my seminar.”

He had a weekly seminar he conducted with his students. “Just come to the seminar and we’ll see what we can do.”

And that’s how it began.

Cindy Kelly: So what was it like to work with him?

Gerjuoy: Well, as I said, his teaching was very fast, I’ve mentioned that elsewhere. He just ripped across the blackboard and just writing all the time, and also smoking a cigarette at the same time. The whole room was filled with Oppenheimer’s smoke. We didn’t know at that time that was something to avoid [laugh]. He’d puff and write on the board and puff and write on the board. Then, he’d come to the end of his cigarette, and he would somehow manage to get another one lit before he started, and off he’d go.

His teaching was, as I say, it was very effective. He never referred to any textbooks. You just had to take notes and really work like you could, trying to make sense out of what he had said.

Working with him was a little more complicated. Of his students, I relatively did not myself work with Oppenheimer very much. What happened was, he always had a post-doc – doing what is the equivalent of a post-doc today. People would come to the group, people would write Oppenheimer about problems, and he would sort of talk to his post-doc and his post-doc would talk to one of the students about it.

So, for instance, the first problem I worked on had to do with an experiment, which involved protons and Fluor-19, producing long-range alphas and had an annular distribution. The annular distribution had some features, which were very unusual – or still, people thought at that time. So this guy who did the experiments, some were in the Middle West, wrote to Oppenheimer and Oppenheimer talked to his post-doc, who then was Robert Serber. And Robert Serber said to me, “Would you like to work on this?”

I said, “Sure.”

I went and worked on this problem and I got it done. I thought I explained it. I did explain it, but the explanation was a little unusual. Oppenheimer looked at it and he said it was okay probably, but he thought I should wait. There was a meeting going to take place at the Physical Society in San Francisco, and [Eugene] Wigner was coming and he was a great expert so I should talk to Wigner about it. So I did. Wigner said it was okay, and the thing got published. And so it went.

Actually, of the three papers I published myself before I got my thesis, I did not work with Oppenheimer as such on any of them. I worked with his post-docs. 

Well, as I say, from the point of view of a student, there were some students he worked more closely with. I was not one of them. In fact, I was a little jealous. I thought that Oppenheimer played favorites, to some extent. There were students whom he invited to his house. There were three or four or five students whom he really was close to and worked with him. I was never favored with one of these invitations. A couple of the students I knew I’d helped with problems, so I was pretty sure I was smarter than they were [laugh].

But I think that was a fault of Oppenheimer. He shouldn’t have done it. He should really have not. But he had a lot of students. I should say that he probably had on the order of fifteen to twenty students at any one time. It was fantastic. And there were other people in his group who were people who had come who had already had PhDs, and would come to sort of work there. So that it was not possible for him to personally be working, really, with all these people at one time.

In that sense, the fact that I wasn’t working with Oppenheimer and working with his post-docs was not surprising or anything to comment about. I think the part that was surprising was the fact that he somehow allowed himself to become sort of more friendly with some of the students and the others were kind of more out in the cold.

I was told elsewhere he was not very good when it came to answering questions. If you asked him questions in class, he would do his best to explain. But his empathy for what people were thinking or how they were feeling was not very good. As a result, he frequently did not really understand the point of what was behind what was bothering his student. If the student persisted, he could get pretty caustic and sarcastic. The result was that people were afraid to ask him questions after a while. It didn’t help.

I can relate one incident, for example. Julian Schwinger, who was Oppenheimer’s post-doc – a very, very smart guy, he got a Nobel Prize, whom I wrote a paper with. Oppenheimer was very good with one thing. He had an office and in this office, he had books, which were not available in the regular department library, some of them in German. He allowed the students to come in and use those books. You didn’t even have to knock on the door.

Anyway, I was in the office one day, and Oppenheimer was there and Schwinger was there. I had a question, which was bothering me, on one of the problems I was working on – another problem, I published a paper later. I asked Schwinger if he would explain something to me. Julian got to the board and started writing on the board. Oppenheimer sort of was there and he looked at Schwinger and he made a remark to Schwinger, sort of a pitying remark about, “It’s too bad that Julian had to spend this time doing this.”

I just turned on Oppie, I really did. [Laugh] I said, “Look,” I said, “Don’t you want me to learn this and to get it straight?”

He sort of apologized. He was really taken aback. [Laugh] So that’s what happened.

In his seminar, again, he really could be quite cruel to the people he was asking questions of. One of his post-docs, Leonard Schiff, really became a member of the National Academy and was Chairman at Stanford. Faculty drove him to tears when they were questioning him, as Schiff was talking. And later, when he went to the Institute [of Advanced Study] – there are various stories about this privately.

For example, when Freeman Dyson came to the Institute to talk about the important work, the demonstration of Feynman’s way of looking at field theory and Schwinger’s way of looking at it were actually identical although they looked so different, it is well known. I mean, Oppenheimer just reduced Feynman [misspoke: Freeman] to silence. He just couldn’t talk, reduced Dyson to silence. He just couldn’t talk. And he just went back, and then [Hans] Bethe wrote a very strong letter to Oppenheimer, “What are you talking about? This guy has done such important work.” Finally, he came back to the Institute and allowed him to tell what he was doing. [Laugh] 

Kelly: Was your description of that incident in the room with Schwinger the reason you didn’t go to Los Alamos?

Gerjuoy: No. The reason I didn’t go to Los Alamos is the following, which I have not particularly publicized. Frankly, I’ll leave it to your judgment as to what you want to do with this.

In about the summer – my memory is not entirely—it’s a little hazy on it – but I would say in about the summer of 1941, a good six months before Pearl Harbor, a group began assembling on the fourth floor of LeConte Hall, which was the physics department building, physics building. Behind the guard, a number of Oppenheimer’s students were working and you couldn’t get in. They were obviously working on something classified. Oppenheimer asked me if I wanted to work there.

I, who was pacifistically inclined, told him that I did not want to do weapons work. Then I was [laugh] foolish enough, without really thinking, I didn’t know what was going on, to tell Oppenheimer that one thing I was worried about was building a weapon, which might someday get out of control and I wouldn’t have any control over what was done with it. He just got furious with me. I obviously touched him on a raw nerve, I had no idea. Anyway, that’s what happened.

Then, when Pearl Harbor took place – if you want to know my life story, it’s just as interesting as Oppenheimer’s – Pearl Harbor took place on a Sunday. I came into LeConte Hall on Monday. Oppenheimer saw me and he said, “You’ve done enough work.” He says, “You’re going to get your PhD.”

So I had a perfunctory oral. I put together my three papers. I had two published and one in press. And they were put together for the thesis. I never wrote a thesis in the usual sense. And by the first of January or so, I essentially had my PhD, although it wasn’t actually formally given until the summer – you know, until commencement – but I had my PhD.

Then the next thing I knew, the Chairman of the Department, Robert T. Burge, calls me in and says, “Well, you know, now that you have your PhD, you’re no longer eligible for teaching assistanceship.”

So suddenly, I was bereft of all support. Next thing I knew, he also told me that my draft board, which had deferred me all these years, now that I had my PhD, they wanted to know what I was going to be doing or else they would put me in 1A.

I was pacifistically inclined, as I said, but I certainly didn’t want to go shooting at people or be shot at. At this point, I went to Oppenheimer and I told Oppenheimer that, well, I was willing to do war work, although I had not wanted to do so before. Oppenheimer told me, “With your attitude, I do not want you.”

So I had to fend for myself and that’s why I ended up doing underwater sound, and that’s why I didn’t go to Los Alamos.

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