One Year of Privatdozent 🎉
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Hi there. It’s been one year since I first launched Privatdozent, the #1 newsletter on the history of mathematics. The newsletter has since grown to more than 8,500 readers and hundreds of paying subscribers, making it the seventh most read science newsletter available via Substack.
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Highlights from 2021-22 📈
See listed below some of the most popular stories on Privatdozent in 2021-22.
Oppenheimer’s Letter of Recommendation for Richard Feynman (1943)
Let’s journey back to November 1943. The Manhattan project is in its fourth year of operations, and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos Laboratory is eleven months into its mission of designing and building the first atomic bomb. Oppenheimer had in 1942 been headhunted to the project by its Director, Lieutenant General Leslie Groves on the strength of the recommendation of physicist Arthur Compton. He was 39 years old at the time, and came to the project already a Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley.
The essay received 853 upvotes on Reddit.
Richard Feynman’s Advice to Young Stephen Wolfram (1985)
Caltech is where Wolfram first met Richard Feynman, who was on his thesis committee. The next year, he went on to win a MacArthur Fellowship, with a letter of recommendation from Feynman. These and other achievements next brought him to the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. There he remained for about three years, before becoming disenchanted, it appears, with his colleagues. This is when he writes a letter to Feynman, venting his frustrations and asking for guidance.
The essay received 437 upvotes on Reddit.
The Golden Age of Quantum Physics
The Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons was held in October 1927 in Brussels, Belgium. Continuing on since the successful inaugural conference of 1911, the Solvay gatherings are devoted to outstanding preeminent open problems in physics, and occur approximately every three years. From 1913 to 1961, every gathering revolved around open problems in quantum theory. Chaired by Hendrik Lorentz in 1927, the stated topic of the conference was “photons and electrons”. In practice, the 1927 conference revolved around the growing dispute between two emerging schools of physics: those fascinated and enthralled by the new quantum mechanics introduced by Heisenberg, and those still clinging to the superseded deterministic paradigm.
The essay received 386 upvotes on Reddit.
The Martians of Budapest
The Martians of Budapest”, sometimes referred to as simply “The Martians” is a colloquial term used to describe a group of prominent Hungarian physicists and mathematicians who emigrated to the United States following the Great Purge of 1933. The term refers to—what appeared, from the perspective of Americans—to be a group of men with superhuman intellects, arriving from an obscure country speaking an incomprehensible foreign language and English with strong, characteristic accents.
The essay received 315 upvotes on Hacker News.
The Eccentricities of J. Robert Oppenheimer
The so-called “Father of the Atomic Bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer was once described as “a genius of the nuclear age and also the walking, talking conscience of science and civilization”. Born at the outset of the 20th century, his early interests in chemistry and physics would in the 1920s bring him to Göttingen University, where he worked alongside his doctoral supervisor Max Born, close lifelong friend Paul Dirac and eventual adversary Werner Heisenberg. This despite the fact that even as early as in his youth, Oppenheimer was singled out as both gifted and odd, at times even unstable. As a child he collected rocks, wrote poetry and studied French literature. Never weighing more than 130 pounds, throughout his life he was a “tall and thin chainsmoker” who once stated that he “needed physics more than friends” who at Cambridge University was nearly charged with attempted murder after leaving a poisoned apple on the desk of one of his tutors. Notoriously abrupt and impatient, at Göttingen his classmates once gave their professor Born an ultimatum: “either the ‘child prodigy’ is reigned in, or his fellow students will boycott the class”. Following the successful defense of his doctoral dissertation, the professor administering the examination, Nobel Laureate James Franck reportedly left the room stating
“I’m glad that’s over. He was at the point of questioning me”
The essay received 244 upvotes on Reddit.
Einstein’s Emigration to America (1933)
Despite holding a chair as Professor of Physics at the esteemed University of Berlin, by 1932 Einstein feared for the safety of both himself and his family. He had spent a large part of the 20s travelling throughout the world on a lecture tour, including to most of Europe, Japan, South America and Palestine. A year before, he had became a fellow at the University of Oxford. In addition, he had visited America on four seperate occasions (1921, ‘30, ‘31 and ‘32), the latter three for extended stays at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California as a visiting professor. This is where he was when Hitler seized power in Germany.
He would never again return to his home country, eventually settling in Princeton, New Jersey as one of the first six founding professors at the Institute for Advanced Study.
This essay received 227 upvotes on Hacker News.
The Duties of John von Neumann’s Assistant in the 1930s
The year is 1933. A 26 year-old former graduate student at Columbia University, Edgar R. Lorch (1907–1990) has just completed his Ph.D. in mathematics and is, in his own words “by some miracle” awarded a National Research Council Fellowship for a year of postdoctoral studies at Harvard University. Worried that the ongoing Great Depression will leave him unemployed, as the fellowship nears its end Lorch applies for a one-year extension to visit Princeton and study under Professor John von Neumann (1903–1957) at the Institute for Advanced Study.
The essay received 187 upvotes on Reddit.
The Poincaré Conjecture, explained
The shape of the universe as it was, is now and may become in the future is very hard for us to discern empirically. Einstein helped us somewhat by showing us that matter and energy (three-dimensional phenomena) in fact may interact with the a four-dimensional phenomenon: time. In this interaction, spacetime may be warped by the presence of mass/energy. Taken together, as far as we can tell, we live in a four-dimensional universe that is susceptible to deformation such as stretching, twisting and bending. That’s where Henri Poincaré and the invention of topology comes in.
The essay received 133 upvotes on Hacker News.
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