Field of Science

Silvan "Sam" Schweber (1928-2017)

I was quite saddened to hear about the passing of Sam Schweber, one of the foremost and most scholarly historians of physics of the last half century. Schweber occupied a rather unique place in the annals of twentieth century physics history. He was one of a select group of people - Abraham Pais, Jeremy Bernstein and Jagdish Mehra were others - who knew many of the pioneers of quantum mechanics and theoretical physics personally and who excelled as both scientists and historians. His work was outstanding as both historiography as well as history, and he wrote at least half a dozen authoritative books.

Schweber got his PhD with Arthur Wightman at Princeton University, but his real break came when he went to Cornell for a postdoc with the great Hans Bethe. Schweber became close friends with Bethe and his official biographer; it was a friendship that lasted until Bethe's demise in 2005. During this time Schweber authored a well received textbook on quantum theory, but he was just getting started with what was going to be life's work.

Schweber became known for two high achievements. Probably the most important one was his book "QED and the Men Who Made It" which stands as the definitive work on the history of quantum electrodynamics. The book focused on both the personal background and the technical contributions of the four main contributors to the early history of QED: Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, Sin Itiro Tomonaga and Freeman Dyson. It's one of those rare books that can be read with profit by both technically competent physicists as well as laymen, since the parts concerning the informal history of physics and personal background of the main participants are as fascinating to read about as the technical stuff. Other prime participants like Hans Bethe, Robert Oppenheimer and Paul Dirac also make major appearances. If Schweber had written just that book and nothing else, he would still have been remembered as a major historian. The book benefited immensely from Schweber's unique combination of talents: a solid understanding of the technical material, a sound immersion in the history of physics, a personal friendship with all the participants and a scholarly style that gently guided the reader along. 

But Schweber did not stop there. His other major work was "In the Shadow of the Bomb", a superb contrasting study of Hans Bethe and Robert Oppenheimer, their background, their personalities, their contributions to physics and nuclear weapons and their similarities and differences. It's a sensitive and nuanced portrait and again stands as the definitive work on the subject.

Two other Schweber contributions guaranteed his place as a major historian. One was another contrasting study, this time comparing Oppenheimer and Einstein. And finally, Schweber put the finishing touches on his study of Bethe's life by writing "Nuclear Forces: The Making of the Physicist Hans Bethe". This book again stands as the definitive and scholarly study of Bethe's early life until World War 2. It's a pity Schweber could not finish his study of the second half of Bethe's remarkably long and productive life.

Another valuable contribution that Schweber made was to record a series of in-depth interviews with both Freeman Dyson and Hans Bethe for the Web of Stories site. These interviews span several hours and are the most detailed interviews with both physicists that I have come across: they will always be a cherished treasure.

Schweber's style was scholarly and therefore his books were not as well known to the layman as they should be. But he did not weigh down his writing with unnecessary baggage or overly academic-sounding phrases. His books generally strike a good balance between academic and popular writing. They are always characterized by meticulous thoroughness, a personal familiarity with the topic and an intimate knowledge of the history and philosophy of science.

By all accounts Schweber was also a real mensch and a loyal friend. When Oppenheimer's student David Bohm became the target of a witch hunt during the hysterical McCarthy years, Schweber and Bohm were both at Princeton. Bohm was dismissed by the university which worried far more about its wealthy donors and reputation than about doing the right thing. Schweber went to the office of Princeton's president and pleaded with him to reinstate Bohm. The president essentially threw Schweber out of his office.

Schweber spent most of his career at Brandeis University near Boston. I was actually planning to see him sometime this year and was in the process of arranging a letter of introduction. While I now feel saddened that I will miss meeting him, I will continue to enjoy and be informed by the outstanding books he has penned and his unique contributions to the history of science.

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