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Tue May 22, 2018, 08:38 PM

Must have been a hell of a place in the 1940's, that Cambridge...

Dirac, Hoyle, Lennard-Jones, Wittgenstein...

Cambridge in 1947 had greatly changed since 1943. The university was crowded with students in their late twenties who had spent many years away at the war. In addition, the lectures were given by the younger generation who had also been away on research projects. There was a general air of excitement as these people turned their attention to new scientific challenges. I remained as a mathematics student but spent the academic year 1947-8 taking courses in as many branches of theoretical science as I could manage. These included quantum mechanics (taught in part by Dirac), fluid dynamics, cosmology and statistical mechanics. Most of the class opted for research in fundamental areas of physics such as quantum electrodynamics which was an active field at the time. I felt that challenging the likes of Einstein and Dirac was overambitious and decided to seek a less crowded (and possibly easier) branch of science. I developed an interest in the theory of liquids, particularly as the statistical mechanics of this phase had received relatively little attention, compared with solids and gases. I approached Fred Hoyle, who was giving the statistical mechanics lectures (following the death of R.H. Fowler). However, his current interests were in the fields of astrophysics and cosmology, which I found rather remote from everyday experience. I next approached Sir John Lennard-Jones (LJ), who had published important papers on a theory of liquids in 1937. He held the chair of theoretical chemistry at Cambridge and was lecturing on molecular orbital theory at the time. When I approached him, he told me that his interests were currently in electronic structure but he would very possibly return to liquid theory at some time. On this basis, we agreed that I would become a research student with him for the following year. Thus, after the examinations in June 1948, I began my career in theoretical chemistry at the beginning of July. I had almost no chemical background, having last taken a chemistry course at BGS at the age of fifteen. Other important events took place in my life at this time. In late 1947, I was attempting to learn to play the piano and rented an instrument for the attic in which I lived in the most remote part of Trinity College. The neighbouring room was occupied by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who had retired to live in primitive and undisturbed conditions in the same attic area. There is some evidence that my musical efforts distracted him so much that he left Cambridge shortly thereafter. In the following year, I sought out a professional teacher. The young lady I contacted, Joy Bowers, subsequently became my wife. We were married in Great St. Mary's Church, Cambridge in 1952, after a long courtship. Like many other Laureates, I have benefit immeasurably from the love and support of my wife and children. Life with a scientist who is often changing jobs and is frequently away at meetings and on lecture tours is not easy. Without a secure home base, I could not have made much progress. The next ten years (1948-1958) were spent in Cambridge. I was a research student until 1951, then a research fellow at Trinity College and finally a lecturer on the Mathematics Faculty from 1954 to 1958. Cambridge was an extraordinarily active place during that decade. I was a close observer of the remarkable developments in molecular biology, leading up to the double helix papers of Watson and Crick. At the same time, the X-ray group of Perutz and Kendrew (introduced to the Cavendish Laboratory by Lawrence Bragg) were achieving the first definitive structures of proteins. Elsewhere, Hoyle, Bondi and Gold were arguing their case for a cosmology of continuous creation, ultimately disproved but vigorously presented. Looking through the list of earlier Nobel laureates, I note a large number with whom I became acquainted and with whom I interacted during those years as they passed through Cambridge.


From the Nobel Lecture of John Pople

6 replies, 1416 views

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Reply Must have been a hell of a place in the 1940's, that Cambridge... (Original post)
NNadir May 2018 OP
pangaia May 2018 #1
3catwoman3 May 2018 #3
NNadir May 2018 #5
DavidDvorkin May 2018 #4
Croney May 2018 #2
NNadir May 2018 #6

Response to NNadir (Original post)

Tue May 22, 2018, 08:50 PM

1. probably interesting but, sorry.. unreadable.



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Response to pangaia (Reply #1)

Tue May 22, 2018, 09:43 PM

3. Yes - paragraphs...

...PLEASE!

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Response to 3catwoman3 (Reply #3)

Wed May 23, 2018, 05:30 PM

5. The excerpt came from Pople's Nobel autobiography, and this particular paragraph is excerpted...

...exactly as written. It is a long paragraph with a lot in it, but it is as it is.

I'm really not competent to edit a Nobel Laureate, although one of my son's professors actually did just that (and was acknowledged in the lecture itself).

It may be a reflection of Pople's intellect that he was able to regard a complex tale all at once, in a sort of run on single thought. Frankly I find the paragraph kind of beautiful in the sense that the breathlessness captures the sense of what it must have been like to have been a young man in that environment.

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Response to pangaia (Reply #1)

Tue May 22, 2018, 10:49 PM

4. The original at the link is broken into paragraphs.

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Response to NNadir (Original post)

Tue May 22, 2018, 09:06 PM

2. I am embarrassed to admit that it wasn't until

the words Trinity College that I realized I was placing this story in the wrong Cambridge.

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Response to Croney (Reply #2)

Wed May 23, 2018, 05:38 PM

6. It's OK. There's the real Cambridge and then there's the baby Cambridge.

The baby Cambridge may lose some luster since the country in which the baby Cambridge resides is run by a nut who's actually madder that George III in the worst of his full blown porphyria.

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