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Physics Department Celebrates Julian Schwinger’s Life and Work

Former colleagues and students of Harvard Physics Professor Julian S. Schwinger, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics, gathered in the department Monday to celebrate the centennial of the late scientist’s birth.

Regarded as one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, Schwinger is known for his groundbreaking contributions to the theory of quantum electrodynamics. He was a member of the Physics Department faculty from 1945 until 1974.

The speakers at the colloquium, many of whom are Nobel laureates themselves, included Sheldon L. Glashow, a math and science professor at Boston University, Walter Gilbert, professor emeritus and chair of the Society of Fellows, Physics Professor Roy J. Glauber ’46, and Daniel J. Kleitman, an applied math professor at MIT.

Though each of the panelists had different stories to share about Schwinger, they were in agreement about one thing: his lectures were one of a kind.

“He was a magisterial lecturer,” said Physics Professor and moderator of Monday’s panel Howard M. Georgi. “He just had total control, not just of the material, but of the class.”

Kleitman, too, remembered being enthralled by Schwinger’s lectures.

“Schwinger would arrive at the door and immediately begin his lecture. He spoke without notes and talked in a quiet voice, in a manner so crystal clear and persuasive that it was hypnotic,” Kleitman said. “We all listened and wrote notes with complete concentration. Nobody dared to ask a question.”

For Glauber, one of Schwinger’s lectures on his design of a new particle accelerator even changed the course of his own career path.

“It was extraordinary, because he had worked out every last detail of this device,” Glauber said. “No such lecture ever had the smoothness or continuity or obvious cogency of this particular lecture.”

After that single class, Glauber decided to finish his bachelor’s degree at Harvard—where Schwinger had recently become a professor—rather than returning to work at Los Alamos.

Glashow said his research on the unification of weak and electromagnetic forces, which won him the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics, was largely based on one of Schwinger’s ideas for Glashow’s dissertation. According to Glashow, Schwinger stepped in quickly to support the unorthodox proposal during his doctoral defense.

“At that point my exam was more or less over,” he said, to laughter from the audience.

“It was wonderful working with Julian,” Glashow said. “The one regret we had, which we expressed to one another much later, was that we never got around to writing that paper on the electroweak theory that we should’ve written.”

Schwinger died in 1994 and is buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, where his tombstone is engraved with symbols referring to one of his pioneering physics calculations.

—Staff writer Amy L. Jia can be reached at amy.jia@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyLJia.

—Staff writer Sanjana L. Narayanan can be reached at sanjana.narayanan@thecrimson.com.

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