In Response to: Adventures in Fine Hall

I was delighted to read “Adventures in Fine Hall.” My compliments to Elyse Graham ’07, the author. This note is to add to her observations.

I was a graduate student in physics during 1959-1963. Eugene Wigner was my thesis supervisor. I arrived at Princeton after an undergraduate career at Duke University as a religion student who ultimately majored in mathematics. Duke had one of the original IBM 650s so I knew how to program and was the only person in my entering class who did. Otherwise, I was totally unprepared for Princeton, in competition with folks who knew vastly more than I.

My initial acquaintance with Princeton was “shock and awe.” When I approached him for advice, the chair of the department, Robert Dicke, informed me that “better men than I” had flunked out of Princeton. He taught an awesome course in experimental physics with which I struggled mightily. But Wigner, who would become my thesis adviser, and Don Hamilton, to whose molecular-beams group I had been assigned for my assistantship, supported me, so I stuck it out.

Rubby Scher sent me to UCLA to analyze some of his data on proton nucleus scattering with two professors there who had written a code on the IBM 704 to do this. I went, learned the code, spent many nights in New York City running the NYU computers, and subsequently wrote two papers on proton-carbon and proton-oxygen elastic scattering before I graduated from Princeton.

I spent most of my time in the library in Fine Hall. It was a wonderful place, peaceful and quiet. But the afternoon tea another matter. At 4 p.m. each day the physics and some of the math departments met for tea and coffee. Every hour the challenge was out: Could you calculate some quantity (e.g. how many spots were there on brown cows in the U.S.?  Or some cross-section for nuclear scattering?), knowing nothing but what you had in your head. Ignorance was no excuse. All you had to do was get the exponential correct, not the prefactor. This was hand-to-hand combat. Lots of egos were gored every day. The graduate students stood in awe; many of them were gored regularly. But we all learned: One should be able to do such order of magnitude calculations of anything at any time. This was a skill that stood us in excellent stead at the time of the general examinations and our thesis defense – and in even better stead in later life.

My point is that the value system of Herman Weyl, Albert Einstein, and John Von Neumann permeated the culture of the math and physics departments for years to come. Studying physics at Princeton was the most terrifying, exciting, and stimulating experience of my life. My colleagues and professors gave even a hopeless entering student like me every assistance so I could pass the generals and graduate with my Ph.D.

So when I read in PAW about the various individuals who come to Princeton, feel isolated, and complain, I wonder if they misunderstand the nature of the Princeton experience. It is designed to make you suffer and realize how little you know, on your way to a distinguished career, because you have learned to do what others cannot.

Charles B. Duke *63
Webster, N.Y.