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Atomic Age


Atom under bombardment., Digital ID 407615, New York Public Library“The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.”  —Jonas Salk

"If you can do something but decide not to, it’s the same thing as saying you can't" —attributed to Richard Feynman

Jonas Salk, born in New York, created a polio vaccine for the common good, rather than personal gain. A very different personage, physicist Richard Feynman, born and raised in the Far Rockaways, chose teaching over salary several times during his lifetime. Many physicists who worked on the Manhattan project both directly and indirectly believed that they were working for the common good, and The New York Public Library owns many fascinating biographies on or by physicists who have lived and worked in New York.

“[…] Feynman found himself the inadvertent owner of three patents. Here he is, years later, in a letter explaining why he declined an offer to leave Cal-Tech that would have tripled his salary:

The reason I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I've always wanted to do — get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things...With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I'd worry about her, what she's doing; I'd get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I wouldn't be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess!

That jokey attitude didn’t please feminists, who once wrote him a long letter protesting a lighthearted story he’d included in a textbook […]”


Clashes with feminists aside, he remains a hero to many.

His contributions were recognized apart from his salary, and his “qualities” did more for him than any formal salary negotiation could have.

“The California offer did prompt Cornell, at Bethe’s urging, to raise Feynman’s salary before he arrived. His 'potential' salary was $3,000; when Berkeley offered $3,900, Cornell agreed to $4,000. Bethe had written: ‘I know that it is unusual to raise a man’s salary before he has even seen the University at which he is employed. The justification, I believe, is given by the unusual times and by the intimate knowledge that we here have acquired of Feynman’s qualities.” Bethe to R.C. Gibbs, 24 July 1945, and Gibbs to Feynman, 3 August 1945. (“Genius”, Gleick, p. 468).

In "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!", one of his autobiographies, Feynman describes reviewing textbooks for the California State Board of Education, and, in one passage notable to New Yorkers, mentions the George Washington bridge.

Fort Washington Park - Hudson River,Bridges - George Washington Bridge, Digital ID 1558509, New York Public Library“The George Washington Bridge was being built, and these guys in the lab were watching its progress. They had plotted the original curve when the main cable was first put up, and they could measure the small differences as the bridge was being suspended from it, as the curve turned into a parabola. It was just the kind of thing I would like to be able to think of doing. I admired those guys; I was always hoping I could work with them one day.”

Brian Greene, professor at Columbia and classmate of Lisa Randall, at Stuyvesant High, wrote The Elegant Universe about superstrings, as well as other works.

Greene on string theory.

Lisa Randall, author of Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions.

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, mystic of the atom by Graham Farmelo.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick, who has also written about Isaac Newton and more.

Leonard Mlodinow was born and raised in Chicago, but I’m mentioning him here because he  wrote Feynman’s Rainbow. He is known for writing screenplays for Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGuyver, in addition to his scientific work and research and is currently working on a new book co-authored by Stephen Hawking, entitled The Grand Design, to be released September 7, 2010.

Enrico Fermi, also worked at Columbia University and on the Manhattan project and lends his name to at least two notable American institutions:

Physics lab about 1850., Digital ID 119680, New York Public Library

  • Belmont Library and Enrico Fermi Cultural Center collection which consists of materials in Italian including newspapers, books, videos, and audiobooks. Additionally, the collection includes information about the Italian American experience.
  • Fermilab, outside of Batavia, Illinois, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, according to their Web site, “advances the understanding of the fundamental nature of matter and energy by providing leadership and resources for qualified researchers to conduct basic research at the frontiers of high energy physics and related disciplines.” They are closing in on determining the existence of the Higgs boson particle.



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