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A Happy Life in a Dreadful Century

Victor Weisskopf used his charisma to unite scientists calling for control of the nuclear weapons he helped invent.

Victor Weisskopf learned early on that he wouldn’t survive without cracking a few jokes. For decades the physicist packed folders with limericks, poems about physics, and scripts of skits making fun of his peers. The sense of humor he cultivated helped Weisskopf, who would serve on the Manhattan Project and the MIT faculty, become a leader among his colleagues, giving him a platform to advocate for ethical science.

Weisskopf began studying science to rebel against what he called “an extremely humanistic family.” After briefly considering becoming a professional musician, he earned his doctorate at the University of Göttingen, then worked under the Austrian theorist Erwin Schrödinger. Weisskopf found him dull, “not at all inspiring,” and distant from his colleagues. When he transferred to Niels Bohr’s institute at the University of Copenhagen, he was surprised to find that Bohr’s closest associates pulled pranks and made fun of his habit of thinking aloud. And Bohr didn’t hold himself above his assistants, inviting them to Tivoli Gardens and the movies.

When Bohr asked early on how he liked the institute, ­Weisskopf replied that he liked the work and all the people—except for one thing. “I expect scientists to be more serious,” he declared. “There are some things that are so serious you can only joke about them,” Bohr answered.

To explain how the electron simultaneously has properties of both particles and waves, Bohr used not a scientific figure but a Cubist painting in his house. He told his students that to fully understand something, you have to see it from many different perspectives that might first appear to contradict each other—just as a Cubist painter depicts a figure from multiple angles at once.

Bohr’s attitude won Weisskopf over. He proved his conversion when he took the stage—as the Dalai Lama—in a satirical adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days after Bohr returned from a long trip. While working to uncover the quantum behavior of electric fields, he wrote parody science articles for the institute’s Journal of Jocular Physics.

In 1937, as the threat of Nazi invasion loomed, Bohr helped Weisskopf, an Austrian Jew, land a teaching job at the University of Rochester. Six years later, J. Robert Oppenheimer asked Weisskopf to join the theoretical physics division of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Their goal: to beat Nazi Germany in building an atomic bomb.

But even as he worked on the most urgent physics problem of his career, the charismatic physicist allowed colleagues to persuade him to run for the Los Alamos town council. He served three terms as councillor, including one as chairman, hashing out issues concerning playgrounds, milk shortages, and sidewalks.

Though Weisskopf thought often about the implications of science, he was caught off guard by the ultimate consequence of modern physics—the detonation of atomic bombs in Japan. “For many of us who had hoped that the bomb would be used in a bloodless demonstration … the news was horrifying,” he wrote. In a speech, a shaken Oppenheimer urged the international “fraternity of scientists” to coöperate to control nuclear weapons.

Weisskopf joined the MIT faculty in 1945, arriving in 1946 after finishing his work at Los Alamos. For the rest of his career, which included nearly five years as director general of CERN, he put his community-building skills to use gathering people to fight the spread of nuclear weapons. A founding member of the Union of Concerned Scientists at MIT, he also cofounded the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists with Albert Einstein and was an active participant in the Pugwash conferences with Soviet scientists. With many friendships on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Weisskopf smoothed out disagreements on the final wording of the conferences’ influential statements on nuclear nonproliferation. These would set the stage for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreement (SALT I) and help lead to the end of above-ground nuclear weapons testing by the U.S., U.K., and U.S.S.R.

As a go-between for scientists in the United States and the Soviet Union, Weisskopf found his sense of humor a useful tool. He was an internationalist, suspicious of patriotism. While in England, traveling back from the U.S.S.R. in 1955, he shared a joke from his Russian colleagues: “What is the difference between capitalism and socialism?” Answer: “In capitalism man exploits man, and in socialism it’s just the other way around.”

And while striving for nuclear control, Weisskopf also kept playing the piano. His favorite composer was Mozart. His sense of fun let him live “a happy life in a dreadful century,” as he put it. He showed fellow scientists that even theoretical physicists don’t live in a vacuum.

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