One of the pleasures of writing and editing Centauri Dreams is connecting with people I’ve been writing about. A case in point is my recent article on Freeman Dyson’s “Gravitational Machines” paper, which has only lately again come to light thanks to the indefatigable efforts of David Derbes (University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, now retired). See Freeman Dyson’s Gravitational Machines for more, as well as the follow-up, Building the Gravitational Machine. I was delighted to begin an email exchange with Dr. Derbes following the Centauri Dreams articles, out of which emerges today’s post, which presents elements of that exchange.

I run this particularly because of my continued fascination with the work and personality of Freeman Dyson, who is one of those rare individuals who seems to grow in stature every time I read or hear about his contributions to physics. It was fascinating to receive from Dr. Derbes not only the background on how this manuscript hunter goes about his craft, thereby illuminating some of the more hidden corners of physics history, but also to learn of his recollections of the interactions between Dyson and Peter Higgs, whose ‘Higgs mechanism’ has revolutionized our understanding of mass and contributed a key factor to the Standard Model of particle physics. I’m also pleased to make the acquaintance of a kindred spirit, who shares my fascination with how today’s physics came to be, and the great figures who shaped its growth.

by David Derbes

I have a lifelong interest in the history of physics, particularly the history of physicists. Somehow I got through graduate school (in the UK; but I’m American) with only a very shaky acquaintance with Feynman diagrams and calculations in QED [quantum electrodynamics, the relativistic quantum theory of electrically charged particles, mutually interacting by exchange of photons]. This led me to a program of self-study (resulting in “Feynman’s derivation of the Schrödiinger equation”, Amer. Jour. Phys. 64 (1996) 881-884, two editions of Dyson’s AQM [Advanced Quantum Mechanics], and, with Richard Sohn, David J. Griffiths, and a cast of thousands, Sidney Coleman’s Lectures on Quantum Field Theory).

Along the way I stumbled onto David Kaiser’s Drawing Theories Apart, a sociological study of Feynman’s diagrams. Kaiser, who is now a friend, is a very remarkable fellow; he has two PhD’s, one in physics ostensibly under Coleman but actually under Alan Guth, and another in the history and philosophy of science). Kaiser mentioned the Cornell AQM notes of Dyson, never published, and I thought, hmmm… I found scans of them online at MIT, and (deleting a few side trips here) contacted Dyson about LaTeX’ing them for the arXiv (where they may be found today).

Image: Physicist, writer and teacher David Derbes, recently retired from University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Credit: Maria Shaughnessy.

Dyson was quite enthusiastic. It probably helped that I had been a grad student of Higgs’ under Nick Kemmer at Edinburgh; Kemmer had steered Dyson towards physics and away from mathematics at Cambridge after the war. Ultimately (in my opinion) it is Dyson who was (very quietly) responsible for the recognition of Higgs’s work, and its incorporation by Weinberg into the Standard Model. Dyson had seen Higgs’s short pieces from 1964, learned (maybe from Kemmer) that he was at UNC Chapel Hill for 1965-66, wrote Higgs to give a talk at the IAS, which led to his giving a talk to Harvard (with Coleman, Glashow, and maybe Weinberg, then at MIT, in the audience).

Typing up Dyson’s Cornell lectures killed two birds: I learned more about QED, and I learned LaTeX from scratch. In retirement, “manuscript salvage” is my main hobby. (There are at least a couple of other oddballs who are doing much the same thing: David Delphenich, and there’s a guy in Australia, Ian Bruce, who has done a bunch of stuff from the 17th and 18th century, among other things a new translation of the Principia.)

Flash forward to shortly after LIGO’s results were announced. A letter in Physics Today drew attention to Dyson’s “Gravitational Machines”, so I went looking for it in the Cameron collection. I have a copy of Dyson’s Selected Works, and as you report the paper is not there. Couldn’t find it anywhere else, either. Cameron’s collection was mostly published in ephemeral paperback (I think there were a small number of hardbacks for libraries, but the U of Chicago’s copy is in paper covers).

So I wrote Dyson, with whom I had developed a very friendly relationship (there is a second edition of AQM, and it was more work than the first, due to the ~200 Feynman diagrams in the supplement), and asked if he would consent to my retyping (and redrawing the illustration for) his article for the arXiv. He was pleased by this. I very much regret that I couldn’t get it done before he died. The reason for that was copyright problems.

I’m going to give you only bullet points for that. Cameron died in 2005. His Interstellar Communication was published by W. A. Benjamin, then purchased by Cummings, Cummings was purchased by Addison-Wesley, and most of A-W’s assets purchased by Pearson; some by Taylor & Francis (UK). Took about four years to unravel. Neither Pearson (totally unhelpful) nor T&F (much better) had any record of the Cameron collection. As this may be helpful to you down the road, here was the resolution:

A work which was in copyright prior to January 1, 1964 had to have its copyright renewed in the 28th year after original copyright or lose its US copyright protection forever. Cameron’s collection was copyrighted in 1963. It took hours, but by scouring the online catalog at the US Copyright Office (you can do it in person near the Library of Congress) I was able to convince myself that the copyright had never been renewed. As far as US copyright goes, “Gravitational Engines” is in the public domain, and so I was clear of corporate entanglements (more to the point, so is the arXiv).

However, as I learned from Dyson’s Selected Papers, the article had originally been entered into an annual contest by the Gravity Research Foundation. The contributors to this contest read historically like a Who’s Who of astrophysics, general relativists and astronomers. So I got in touch with that organization’s director, George Rideout Jr. Rideout’s father had been appointed director by Roger W. Babson. who made a pile of money and set the foundation up. The story behind this is very sad: His beloved older sister drowned, and he blamed gravity. So he thought, well, if people could only invent anti-gravity, that might prevent future disasters. So he set up the foundation. (I think they also provided some funding for GR1 [Conference on the Role of Gravitation in Physics], the first international general relativity conference, Chapel Hill, 1957.)

I quickly obtained permission from George Rideout, satisfied the arXiv officials that they were free and clear to post “Gravitational Engines,” and here we are. (As I mentioned in the arXiv posting, the abstract comes from the original Gravity Research Foundation submission; it is absent in the Cameron collection.)

Incidentally, in chasing down other things, I found something I’d been seeking for a long time, the report from the Chapel Hill conference:

(So as you can see, there are several of us oddball manuscript hunters out there.)

Theoretical physics was not that large a community in 1965, and the British community even smaller. The physicists of Dyson’s generation typically went to Cambridge (which remains the main training ground for math and physics in the UK), with smaller spillover at Oxford, Imperial College London, and Edinburgh.

Kemmer hired Higgs at Edinburgh (Peter had been in the same department as Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at King’s College, London. He was an expert at the time on crystal structure via group theory. He did not have any direct involvement with the DNA work, though subsequently he wrote an article that had a lot to do post facto with explaining the helical structure. The big boss at the lab (not Wilkins) was apparently quite annoyed with Higgs that he didn’t want to work on DNA.) Higgs wrote a Kemmer obit for the University of Edinburgh bulletin. He had been at Edinburgh for a couple of years in the 1950s in a junior position before he returned for good in 1960 (I think).

If I recall correctly, as Peter tells the story, Sheldon Glashow (who Higgs had known since a Scottish Summer School (conference) in Physics, 1960, I think) told Higgs that if he were ever planning to be in the Northeast, Glashow would arrange for Peter to give a talk at Harvard on whatever he liked. Independently of Glashow, Dyson wrote Peter to give a talk on what is now famously the Higgs mechanism at IAS, and Peter called Glashow to say something like, “Well, I’m driving from Chapel Hill to Princeton, and I see that Cambridge is only another few hours, so…” and that led to Higgs giving pretty much the same talk at Harvard, a really important event. But if Dyson hadn’t asked Peter to come to Princeton, he would not have gone to Harvard.

[Thus the contingencies of history, always telling a fascinating tale, in this case of a concept that rocked the world of physics, and wouldn’t you know Freeman Dyson would be in the middle of it.- PG]